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University of Basel

Role models in conflict situations.

Text: Pascale Hofmeier

Arguments and disputes are a part of everyday family life. They only really become a problem if they are chronically destructive – as Dr. Letizia Gauck and her colleagues observe on a daily basis at the Center for Developmental and Personality Psychology.

Björn, 7, is something of a rascal. He’s very active, and loves to play pranks. He once poured water into a classmate’s schoolbag; more thanjust harmless mischief, in his mother’s view. “It’s not that bad,” counters his father – boys will be boys, after all. The problems in Björn’s family have become so disruptive that his parents decided to seek help from the University of Basel’s Center for Developmental and Personality Psychology (ZEPP) – along with 150 other families in the last year.

“In Björn’s case, the child’s behavior has led to a couple conflict,” explains Dr. Letizia Gauck, psychologist and psychotherapist, and head of the ZEPP. “Couple confl icts of this sort are often at the heart of family conflicts.” It’s the dark side of family life: Every day, a host of different commitments, needs and desires collide. Some of them are easy enough to reconcile, but in many cases a dispute is unavoidable. For most couples, there is no shortage of contentious issues: parenting, housekeeping, hobbies, finances, annoying habits or the partners’ respective families.

Plenty to argue about

Some areas of conflict are dependent on income level, recent research from the US has shown: couples with a lower income are more likely to argue about financial matters and substance abuse. For higher-income families, meanwhile, disputes are more likely to focus on communication or domestic chores. And the more burdens a family faces – from unemployment to debts or even measures to stem the coronavirus pandemic – the more confl icts are likely to arise.

Arguments between parents and children, meanwhile, most commonly involve media consumption, school, homework and rules. However, whether or not those involved perceive an argu-ment as a confl ict is highly subjective: “A discussion that for one family simply reflects an animated style of communication might feel like an utter catastrophe to another,” says Gauck.

According to the type of argument and the emotions that accompany it, psychologists distinguish between critical, negative interactions, on the one hand, and constructive conflicts on the other. If a couple – or family – is able to resolve its conflicts constructively, the result is positive development. “To resolve a conflict constructively, it helps to open up emotionally. Respect, active listening, willingness to compromise and a healthy dose of humor all help, too,” says Gauck. What is more: “You need at least twice as much positive feed-back as criticism for a constructive discussion.”

A chronically destructive dynamic, meanwhile, in which the participants demean and deliberately hurt each other, can have especially harmful eff ects. “Children are observers, and parents are role models. Children adopt their parents’ strategies. If one of them yells or becomes aggressive, children see that and learn these behaviors,” says Gauck.

Show negative feelings too

This does not, however, mean that parents should hide away all their negative emotions from them-selves and their children. “Many parents think that unpleasant feelings and thoughts should not exist,” says Silvia Meyer, a psychologist working at the ZEPP. These feelings often convey important information: anger indicates that a line has been crossed, while fear can be a response to a real threat. “Children need to learn to recognize these emotions and deal with them appropriately,” adds Gauck. If parents conceal these feelings from their children in day-to-day life, they are depriving them of the opportunity to experience them. This can lead to conflicts later on – for instance at school, or as adults when the time comes for them to start their own family.

Chronically destructive arguments in families over extended periods can have serious repercussions: the children of parents who quarrel frequently are more emotionally insecure, often feeling responsible for the confl ict between their parents. Recent results from the University of Wisconsin-Madison have shown that behavioral problems can occur in children who are present when their parents argue and are themselves the subject of the discussion.

In addition to the children who experience distressing separations or divorces, it is estimated that some 20 percent of children are exposed to chronically destructive family interactions. “In our experience,however, there is no connection between how a family deals with conflict and whether its members live together or apart,” says Meyer.

Yet what can families do to escape the negative spiral? “That depends very much on the individual situation, and can be extremely difficult without external help,” says Gauck. “Here at the ZEPP, we always look for a solution that fi ts the family system in question. A key aspect of this is having realistic, achievable goals.” In the case of Björn and his parents, it emerged during counselling that the father had been very harshly disciplined as a child. This led him to adopt a laissez-faire approach in his own parenting, reflecting his family of origin, says Gauck. At the ZEPP, the couple is now exploring which boundaries can give their son the stability he needs, and how they can help him to control his impulses.

Alongside this approach, rooted in behavioral therapy, the counselling offered at the ZEPP employs other tried and tested psychological methods and, where necessary, validated diagnostic tests. This yields a wealth of data, some of which can be lever-aged – with the consent of those involved – for re-search purposes.

Conflict among siblings

Recent research shows that in early childhood siblings tend to quarrel 6 to 8 times an hour and significantly less  frequently in later childhood and adolescence. The most common arguments are about who something belongs to, or how a particular game should be played. During middle childhood, a shift in focus can be observed, with conflicts among siblings centering on provocations, socially intrusive behavior and threats.

More articles in the current issue of UNI NOVA.

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