Healthy conflict makes families stronger

Opinion: Managing family conflict is crucial to improving child well-being in New Zealand, writes Dr Nickola Overall.

Directly engaging in conflict, even when it involves anger and hostility, can help resolve problems and improve relationships. The challenge for parents is to ensure conflict within their own family remains ‘healthy’ and does not harm their children.

Alarmingly, New Zealand ranks at the bottom of the EU/OECD in child well-being – a measure which is drawn from aspects of children’s lives including psychological health, peer bullying and family conflict. Improving our child well-being statistic hinges on creating healthy families and therefore it is crucial we identify how to manage family conflict.

Hostile conflict within families harms parents’ psychological and physical health, and the health, well-being and development of their children. Children develop poorer social skills, for example, showing aggression and antisocial behaviour with their peers. But family conflict is inevitable. It can be an important training ground for managing conflict across other domains in life, and avoiding conflict often makes situations worse

Our research is showing that beneficial conflict includes not only positive behaviour, such as reasoning and problem solving, but also negative behaviour, such as anger and criticism, which are traditionally viewed as damaging. These findings have made our research controversial. But what we have concluded is that both forms of conflict show a commitment to resolving problems and a desire from family members to change and improve the situation. As a result, relationships can become stronger over time.

By contrast, minimising conflict by using affection and humour, or avoiding it by withdrawing and suppressing negative emotions, leaves problems unaddressed and unresolved. Over time, these effects can damage and undermine relationships.

To date, the benefits of conflict engagement have focused on the outcomes for adults and have not taken into account the harm that parental conflict can have on children – for example, by causing greater emotional insecurity, anxiety and depression. Yet, the reality is that avoiding conflict is also detrimental to children and equally harmful to their development.

So how do we balance the good with the bad, the negative factors of conflict with the positive?

We believe the key lies in conflict recovery, which is the ability to rebound emotionally and re-establish intimacy after conflict to get on with other important goals, such as parenting. Put simply, parents who fight and then make up will not only be OK, but help their children develop effective conflict management skills. Parents who continue the negativity or avoid confronting the issues, on the other hand, will have the most harmful effects on their children’s well-being and development.

Our comprehensive longitudinal family study will test the pivotal role that conflict recovery should play in determining whether conflict between parents actually has benefits for both adults and children.

For adults, conflict and recovery are jointly necessary to sustain the quality of relationships. It’s healthy to engage with each other, address the problem and then take things back to normal, alleviating any on-going stress and restoring intimacy and security in the aftermath. We will also be testing whether conflict engagement combined with conflict recovery is a factor in creating family security.

We believe our research will help cultivate family well-being by exposing the role of conflict recovery in sustaining parent relationships and enriching children’s development.

Nickola Overall is an Associate Professor in the School of Psychology. Nickola's research examines how emotional, attachment and relationship difficulties can be overcome to build healthy relationships. 

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not the views of the University of Auckland. 

Used with permission from Newsroom, Healthy conflict makes families stronger published on Wednesday 17 January 2018.