Living with others increases the opportunity for all types of interaction, especially conflict. Struggles between parents and their children are common manifestations of family life. In fact, families may have more conflict that other social groups. Prior theory and research regarding Western, individualist cultures suggests that as such contact and interdependence between people increases, conflict becomes more likely and more frequent (Braiker and Kelley 1979). However, in Eastern collectivist cultures, the increase in conflict may not result in such situations due to a preference for nonconfrontation (Chua and Gudykunst 1987). However, virtually no research examines how family communication in conflict differs based upon culture. Some reasons for this paucity of research are discussed in the conclusion. This entry focuses on research describing the nature of parent-child conflict from a Western perspective.
As with marital relationships, an average amount of conflict between parents and children is difficult to determine, although there are estimates (e.g., Montemayor 1986). The frequency of conflict appears to be linked with child development. For example, the highest number of conflicts—mother-child interactions—occurred with two-year-olds versus children who were eighteen months or three years old (Dunn and Munn 1987). Among adolescents, conflict interactions tend to increase until about the age of fifteen, and then subside in later adolescence. Parent-child conflict is probably related to parental development as well, though research is currently less definitive in this area.
Beyond conflict frequency, one of the most rudimentary features of conflict management is whether an issue is engaged or avoided. Engagement involves overt, verbal confrontation. Avoidance can take many forms, including withholding complaints, evading discussion of sensitive issues, and defensively withdrawing from a conflict discussion. Different families establish different norms regarding the frequency with which conflicts are engaged or avoided.
Another important dimension of conflict management concerns its positivity or negativity (Sillars and Wilmot 1994). Some behaviors are relatively positive in sentiment and affective tone, such as conciliatory statements, supportive comments that validate the other's point of view, attempts to understand the other's position, and so on. Negative behaviors are disagreeable, inflammatory, and sometimes hostile. Examples include demands, threats, insults, and defensiveness. Distressed families exhibit more negative conflict behaviors, greater reciprocation of negative emotions and behaviors, and a lower proportion of positive behaviors compared to non-distressed families (e.g., Montemayor 1986).
An important feature of parent-child relationships that may affect the negativity of conflicts is that the relationships are not voluntary. In other words, children do not pick their parents. Like marriage partners, parents and their offspring develop considerable intimacy. More so than spouses, however, parents and their children are "bound" in a family relationship, which can serve to intensify serious conflicts between them, and family disputes often represent underlying relational struggles regarding power or intimacy (Emery 1992).
Regardless of the "involuntary" nature of parent-child relationships, family conflict has the potential to positively impact children. Specifically, childhood conflict interactions can contribute positively to personal and social development. Moreover, parents can develop their negotiation skills in conflicts with their children. To garner such positive rewards from conflict interactions, family members need two basic skills for conflict management: flexibility versus rigidity and the ability to manage conflict without escalating the severity of the problem.
Clearly, the study of these general features of parent-child conflict contributes to understanding the experience. Additionally, one important theme consistently emerges in discussions of these general features: development. Focusing on how parent-child conflict evolves as children (and parents) age provides a more thorough picture of the phenomenon. The following sections survey the research findings regarding parent-child conflict based upon the general age group of the children.