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Open Access 01-01-2011 | Empirical Research

# Developmental Changes in Conflict Resolution Styles in Parent–Adolescent Relationships: A Four-Wave Longitudinal Study

Auteurs: Muriel D. Van Doorn, Susan J. T. Branje, Wim H. J. Meeus

Gepubliceerd in: Journal of Youth and Adolescence | Uitgave 1/2011

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## Introduction

Adolescence is a period in which many changes occur. Adolescents are striving for more autonomy and self-determination (Collins 1990; Laursen and Collins 2004). Indeed, one of the most salient developmental tasks during adolescence is establishing oneself as an autonomous being (Erikson 1959; Steinberg 1990). Ideally, parent–adolescent relationships in Western societies gradually change from a more vertical, asymmetrical relationship to a more horizontal, symmetrical relationship (Collins 1990, 1995; Collins and Steinberg 2006; Russell et al. 1998; Steinberg 1990; Youniss and Smollar 1985). Although parents encourage autonomy of their children and accept more symmetrical relations, they have somewhat different expectations regarding the timing of appropriate autonomy for their adolescents (Deković et al. 1997). These changes into more symmetrical relationships might therefore go hand in hand with some friction between parents and adolescents. In fact, conflicts are exceptionally suited to fostering the renegotiation of parental authority (Collins and Laursen 2004; Sillars et al. 2004; Smetana 1995) and are thus inevitable in this realignment process (Collins et al. 1997; Collins and Steinberg 2006). In the current study, we will investigate whether conflict resolution styles of adolescents and their parents change during adolescence.
We chose to investigate changes in conflict resolution styles in adolescent–mother and adolescent–father relationships separately, not only because conflicts are mainly dyadic interactions, but most importantly because adolescents perceive their relationship with mothers and fathers differently (Youniss and Smollar 1985). For example, theories of parental complementarity in socialization imply that father–child interactions are less likely than mother–child interactions to be concerned with caregiving and intimate exchanges. In addition, several theoretical and empirical studies suggest that, during the transition to adolescence, mother–child interactions are characterized by greater perturbations than father–child interactions (Collins and Russell 1991). Among the explanations for this hypothesis is the greater amount of interaction of adolescents with mothers compared to fathers, and mothers’ greater attempt to maintain children’s dependency (e.g. Collins 1990; Collins and Russell 1991; Parke and Buriel 2006; Videon 2005). Although we have no clear theoretical or empirical reasons to expect differences between boys and girls, we will conduct preliminary analyses to examine whether we should incorporate this distinction in our main analyses.

## Method

### Procedure

The participating adolescents were recruited from various, randomly selected schools in the province of Utrecht, The Netherlands. Of the schools that were approached, 60% decided to participate. Participants and their parents received an invitation letter, describing the research project and goals, and explaining the possibility to decline from participation. More than 99% of the approached high school students decided to participate. If the adolescent wished to participate, they (as well as their parents) were required to provide written informed consent. Data collection took place each year in the months of November and December. Interviewers visited the schools and asked participating adolescents to gather in classrooms to fill out a questionnaire. Interviewers also visited the families at home. During these home visits, adolescents filled out an additional questionnaire and both parents also filled out a questionnaire. The adolescents and their parents were instructed to fill out the questionnaire independently of each other. Confidentiality was guaranteed. Families received €27 for participation (approximately US $36) and adolescents received an additional amount of €10 for participating at school (approximately US$13).

### Measures

#### Conflict Resolution Styles

Conflict resolution styles were measured using Kurdek’s Conflict Resolution Style Inventory (CRSI; Kurdek 1994). This questionnaire, originally designed for couples, was modified so that it referred to parents and adolescents. The validity of this measure with regard to parent–adolescent relationships has been showed in various studies (Branje et al. 2009; Van Doorn et al. 2007, 2008). Three conflict resolution styles were used in this study: positive problem solving, conflict engagement, and withdrawal. Adolescents were asked to rate the extent to which they use these three conflict resolution styles when they have conflicts with fathers and mothers. Also, fathers and mothers were asked to rate the extent to which they used the same three conflict resolution styles when they have conflicts with their adolescents. Thus, each person reported on one’s own conflict resolution style. Each conflict resolution style was measured by 5 items and the items were rated on a 5-point Likert scale with response options ranging from never to always. Positive problem solving involved making compromises and discussing the conflict effectively. Sample items of positive problem solving were: “negotiating and trying to find a solution that is mutually acceptable” and “sitting down and discussing the differences of opinion”. Conflict engagement involved being verbally abusive, getting very angry, or losing self-control and was measured by items such as: “getting furious and losing my temper”, and “letting myself go and saying things I do not really mean”. Withdrawal implied avoiding the problem, avoid talking, and becoming distant. Items used to measure withdrawal were for example: “not listening anymore”, “refusing to talk any longer”, and “withdrawing from the situation”.

## Results

### Descriptives and Correlations

Table 1
Means and standard deviations of the conflict resolution styles in parent–adolescent relationships

Time 1
M (SD)
Time 2
M (SD)
Time 3
M (SD)
Time 4
M (SD)
Positive problem solving
3.15 (.90)
3.16 (.92)
3.27 (.86)
3.33 (.83)
3.01 (.98)
3.00 (1.02)
3.07 (1.00)
3.20 (.93)
4.03 (.54)
4.01 (.55)
3.98 (.58)
3.99 (.54)
3.64 (.60)
3.62 (.63)
3.68 (.56)
3.72 (.54)
Conflict engagement
1.44 (.55)
1.48 (.54)
1.48 (.58)
1.41 (.51)
1.32 (.50)
1.31 (.49)
1.39 (.60)
1.33 (.51)
1.76 (.50)
1.69 (.47)
1.67 (.47)
1.61 (.48)
1.72 (.48)
1.69 (.50)
1.67 (.51)
1.62 (.52)
Withdrawal
1.96 (.71)
2.06 (.79)
2.05 (.79)
1.97 (.78)
1.83 (.78)
1.88 (.84)
1.95 (.84)
1.93 (.84)
1.59 (.54)
1.63 (.53)
1.59 (.52)
1.60 (.58)
1.64 (.55)
1.67 (.55)
1.67 (.53)
1.71 (.61)
Table 2
Time 1 correlations between conflict resolution styles of adolescents with parents and parents with adolescents

ps a-p
ce a-p
wi a-p
ps p-a
ce p-a
wi p-a
Positive problem solving a-p
−.13*
−.22**
.11*
−.01
−.10
Conflict engagement a-p
−.07
.47**
−.02
.13*
.23**
Withdrawal a-p
−.19**
.47**
−.02
−.03
.17**
Positive problem solving p-a
.08
−.06
−.07
−.11
−.13*
Conflict engagement p-a
−.03
.19**
.08
−.08
.38**
Withdrawal p-a
.05
.25**
.26**
−.08
.43**
Note: ps positive problem solving, ce conflict engagement, wi withdrawal, a-p adolescents’ conflict resolution with parents, p-a parents’ conflict resolution with adolescents. Correlations below the diagonal involve adolescent–mother relationships and correlations above the diagonal involve adolescent–father relationships
p < .05, ** p < .01

### Preliminary Analyses on Differences in the Development of Conflict Resolution Styles for Boys and Girls

Before investigating adolescents’ and parents’ change over time in conflict resolution styles, we tested whether there were differences between boys and girls on the development of the conflict resolution styles with their parents. Repeated measures ANOVAs with levels of the conflict resolution styles at Time 1 to 4 as within subject measure and adolescents’ sex as between subject factor showed that there were no interaction effects. There were four occasions in which the scores of girls and boys on the conflict resolution styles with fathers or mothers were significantly different from each other. Thus, there were some differences between boys and girls in their reported use of the three conflict resolution styles with fathers and mothers, but adolescents’ reported change in their use of the three conflict resolution styles with fathers and mothers was comparable for boys and girls. Therefore, boys and girls were analyzed as one group.

### Development of Conflict Resolution Styles in Parent–Adolescent Relationships

To investigate adolescents’ and parents’ change over time in positive problem solving, conflict engagement, and withdrawal, we performed 12 univariate latent growth models using Mplus (Muthén and Muthén 1998–2007). For each conflict resolution style, a model was tested for adolescent–mother, adolescent–father, mother–adolescent, and father–adolescent relationships separately, resulting in a total of 12 models: 2 × 3 styles of adolescents with parents (mothers/fathers) and 2 × 3 styles of parents (mothers/fathers) with adolescents. We first tested a linear model. When the mean or variance of the quadratic slope was significant, we used the model with the quadratic slope. When the mean and variance of the quadratic slope were both not significant, we used the model with the linear slope. To evaluate the fit of each model, we used the Comparative Fit Index (CFI), the Tucker-Lewis Index (TLI), and the Root Mean Square Error of Approximation (RMSEA). For values of CFI and TLI, values above .90 indicate acceptable fit and values above .95 indicate good fit (Hu and Bentler 1999). RMSEA values up to .05 represent an acceptable fit of the model (Bollen 1989).
In four out of twelve models, we found that the model with the quadratic slope fitted the data better than the model with the linear slope only (see Table 3). The models fitted the data sufficiently both for adolescent–mother relationships (CFI’s range from .98 to 1.00, TLI’s range from .98 to 1.00, and RMSEA’s were .00, with one exception of .06) and adolescent–father relationships (CFI’s range from .96 to 1.00, TLI’s range from .96 to 1.00, and RMSEA’s range from .00 to .04, with two exceptions of .07). Table 3 shows the intercepts and slopes of positive problem solving, conflict engagement, and withdrawal of adolescents and parents. In Figs. 1, 2, and 3, changes in conflict resolution styles of adolescents and parents are shown. Note that the y-axis range is different for the three conflict resolution styles for presentation clarity purposes.
Table 3
Adolescents’ and parents’ change over time in conflict resolution styles

Intercept
Linear slope

M
95% CI
SE
σ2
SE
M
SE
σ2
SE
M
SE
σ2
SE
Positive problem solving
3.13***d
3.03–3.23
.05
.51***
.07
.06***
.02
.02
.01

3.01***d
2.90–3.12
.06
.85***
.15
−.04
.06
.56**
.19
.03
.02
.05***
.01
4.02***f
3.96–4.08
.03
.16***
.02
−.01
.01
.00
.00

3.62***e
3.56–3.68
.03
.22***
.04
.03**
.01
.01
.01

Conflict engagement
1.44***a
1.38–1.50
.03
.20***
.03
.07*
.03
.00
.00
−.03**
.01
.00***
.00
1.31***a
1.26–1.37
.03
.15***
.02
.04
.03
.00
.00
−.01
.01
.00***
.00
1.75***bc
1.70–1.80
.03
.18***
.02
−.04***
.01
.01**
.00

1.72***bc
1.67–1.78
.03
.17***
.02
−.03***
.01
.00
.00

Withdrawal
1.97***c
1.89–2.05
.04
.28**
.09
.13**
.05
.08
.13
−.05**
.01
.01
.01
1.84***c
1.76–1.92
.04
.42***
.06
.04*
.02
.03**
.01

1.61***b
1.55–1.66
.03
.17***
.02
.00
.01
.01*
.00

1.64***b
1.58–1.70
.03
.19***
.02
.02*
.01
.00
.00

Note: Differing superscript alphabets indicate significant differences between the intercepts within adolescent–mother and adolescent–father relationships
p < .05, ** p < .01, *** p < .001

#### Changes in Adolescents’ and Parents’ Use of Positive Problem Solving

We hypothesized that positive problem solving of adolescents with parents would increase from early to middle adolescence. We found that, whereas adolescents’ reported use of positive problem solving with mothers increased from early to middle adolescence, adolescents’ reported use of positive problem solving with fathers did not change on average. We also hypothesized that parents’ use of positive problem solving with adolescents would increase from early to middle adolescence. However, positive problem solving of mothers with adolescents did not change on average. Fathers’ reported use of positive problem solving with adolescents did indeed increase.

#### Changes in Adolescents’ and Parents’ Use of Conflict Engagement

Partly confirming our hypothesis, we found that changes in adolescents’ reported use of conflict engagement with mothers was curvilinear: conflict engagement increased between Time 1 and Time 2, and decreased between Time 2 and Time 4. Thus, we did find an increase in adolescents’ reported use of conflict engagement with mothers, but this increase was only temporary. Unexpectedly, adolescents’ use of conflict engagement with fathers did not change on average. We explored the use of conflict engagement by parents and found conflict engagement of both mothers and fathers to decrease significantly over time.

#### Changes in Adolescents’ and Parents’ Use of Withdrawal

As expected, withdrawal by adolescents with both parents was found to increase, although the increase of adolescents’ use of withdrawal with mothers was only temporarily: adolescents’ use of withdrawal increased between Time 1 and Time 2, and decreased between Time 2 and Time 4. Mothers’ use of withdrawal did not change, on average, and fathers’ use of withdrawal was found to significantly increase from early to middle adolescence.

### Mean Level Differences in Adolescents’ and Parents’ Reported Conflict Resolution Styles

In sum, we found some mean level differences in adolescents’ and parents’ reported conflict resolution styles: parents reported significantly higher levels of positive problem solving and conflict engagement towards adolescents than adolescents, whereas adolescents reported significantly higher levels of withdrawal towards their parents than their parents. In general, mothers and fathers did not differ in the reported levels of the conflict resolution styles towards adolescents (except for positive problem solving, for which mothers reported higher levels than fathers), and adolescents reported similar levels of the conflict resolution styles towards mothers and fathers.

## Discussion

The purpose of the present study was to investigate changes in conflict resolution styles in parent–adolescent relationships. Generally, we found that both adolescents and their parents changed in their use of conflict resolution from early to middle adolescence in favor of a more horizontal and symmetrical relationship, as indicated by changes in both positive problem solving and conflict engagement. We found some differences in the development of adolescents’ conflict resolution styles with their mothers and fathers. In addition, the development of parents’ reported conflict resolution styles with their adolescents was also in some instances different for mothers and fathers.
In line with theoretical arguments that more mature ways of conflict resolution develop during adolescence (Sandy and Cochran 2000; Selman 1980; Youniss and Smollar 1985), we found that adolescents reported an increase in their use of positive problem solving with mothers from early to middle adolescence. However, adolescents’ reported use of positive problem solving with fathers did not change. The finding that adolescents reported an increase in their use of positive problem solving with mothers and not with fathers is somewhat in line with the Jensen-Campbell and Graziano study (2000), which found an increase in compromising only in daughter–mother relationships, not in son–mother and adolescent–father relationships. Whereas mothers’ reported use of positive problem solving with adolescents did not change on average, fathers’ reported use of positive problem solving significantly increased. However, as mothers reported significantly higher levels of initial positive problem solving towards adolescents than fathers in early adolescence, the increase in positive problem solving of fathers should be interpreted carefully. The results with respect to positive problem solving suggest that there is more maturation in adolescents’ relationship with mothers and that fathers are lagging behind. However, the increase of fathers’ reported positive problem solving might suggest that fathers might catch up eventually. This is an area for future investigation.
Although not the main focus of this study, findings from our preliminary analyses regarding differences in the development of conflict resolution styles by boys and girls showed that there were some differences in the reported level of conflict resolution styles, but that there were no differences in the reported change in conflict resolution styles with mothers and fathers for boys and girls. Moreover, we found an interesting pattern of findings with respect to adolescents’ and parents’ mean levels on positive problem solving, conflict engagement, and withdrawal. That is, mothers and fathers reported significantly higher levels of positive problem solving and conflict engagement compared to adolescents, whereas they reported lower levels of withdrawal compared to adolescents. This pattern reflects the dominant role parents play during conflicts in early adolescence. It shows that mothers and fathers are generally more engaging in conflicts than their adolescents, either in a positive way or in a more aggressive way. Adolescents were found to use more withdrawal compared to their parents and thus withdraw more during conflicts with their parents, also demonstrating the more engaging role of parents in parent–adolescent conflict. However, future research is warranted.

### Strengths, Limitations, and Future Directions

Although our study provided insight into the development of conflict resolution styles in parent–adolescent relationships, new questions arise. For example, future research might include the larger family system as well, such as conflict resolution in the sibling relationship, parent-sibling relationship, and marital relationship as this might have consequences for the way conflict is handled in families. For instance, the way parents resolve conflicts with each other has been found to influence the way adolescents handle conflicts with their parents 2 years later (Van Doorn et al. 2007). Recently, research showed that the peak in conflict frequency is sooner with second-born children than with first-born children (Shanahan et al. 2007). This might also have consequences for the way parents deal with conflicts with their second-born. Moreover, as previous research found differences in the development of compromising for the daughter–mother, daughter–father, and son-parent dyad (Jensen-Campbell and Graziano 2000), a potential next step might be to investigate changes in conflict resolution styles for all four dyads separately using a larger sample. Finally, another potential next step might be to investigate by means of multivariate growth curves whether changes in a certain conflict resolution style are accompanied by changes in other conflict resolution styles. For example, it might be interesting to test whether an increase in the use of positive problem solving by adolescents is accompanied by a decrease in conflict engagement by adolescents. Likewise, it might be interesting to investigate how the development of conflict resolution styles is related to changes in conflict intensity.

## Conclusions

Taken together, our study sheds light on changes in conflict resolution styles in parent–adolescent relationships from early to middle adolescence and shows that adolescents and parents tend to change the way they handle conflict in line with the demands of a more horizontal relationship. As relationship demands change from early to middle adolescence, parents and adolescents tend to change the way they resolve conflicts with each other towards greater egalitarianism. Moreover, our results suggest that adolescent–mother relationships are mature at an earlier point in time than adolescent–father relationships, but that this maturation does not evolve without friction.

## Open Access

Open AccessThis is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial License (https://​creativecommons.​org/​licenses/​by-nc/​2.​0), which permits any noncommercial use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited.

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Metagegevens
Titel
Developmental Changes in Conflict Resolution Styles in Parent–Adolescent Relationships: A Four-Wave Longitudinal Study
Auteurs
Muriel D. Van Doorn
Susan J. T. Branje
Wim H. J. Meeus
Publicatiedatum
01-01-2011
Uitgeverij
Springer US
Gepubliceerd in
Journal of Youth and Adolescence / Uitgave 1/2011
Print ISSN: 0047-2891
Elektronisch ISSN: 1573-6601
DOI
https://doi.org/10.1007/s10964-010-9516-7

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