Dangers of avoiding conflict

01 December 2017
Associate Professor Nickola Overall, School of Psychology
Associate Professor Nickola Overall, School of Psychology

Directly engaging in conflict, even when it involves anger and hostility, helps resolve problems and improves relationships, writes Associate Professor Nickola Overall from the School of Psychology

How then can parents engage in conflict which does not harm their children? A new Royal Society of NZ Marsden-funded research collaboration between myself, Annette Henderson and Elizabeth Peterson in the School of Psychology tackles this question.

New Zealand ranks at the bottom of the EU/OECD in child wellbeing, including psychological health, peer bullying, and family conflict. Improving child wellbeing hinges on creating healthy families and therefore it is crucial we identify how to manage family conflict.

Unmanaged, conflict within families harms parents’ psychological and physical health, and the health, wellbeing and development of their children. Children develop poorer social skills, for example showing aggression and lower prosocial behaviour with their peers. But family conflict is inevitable, avoiding it often makes situations worse, and it can be an important training ground for managing conflict across all domains in life.  

What we are showing with our research, which has been controversial, is that beneficial conflict includes not only positive behaviour, such as reasoning and problem solving, but also negative behaviour, such as anger and criticism, traditionally viewed as damaging. The reason is, both forms of conflict engagement show commitment to resolving serious problems, produce greater problem improvement, and thus sustain relationships across time.

By contrast, minimising conflict using affection and humour, or avoiding it by withdrawing and suppressing negative emotions, leaves problems unaddressed and thus relationships are undermined across time.

To date, the benefits of conflict engagement have targeted adult outcomes without taking into account the harm parental conflict engagement can have for children – for example, greater emotional insecurity, anxiety and depression. Yet, parents’ conflict avoidance and disengagement are also detrimental to children and can bring greater behavioural problems such as poorer peer functioning, and lower health and wellbeing.

We propose the key to realising the benefits, but reducing the costs of conflict engagement for both adults and children, is conflict recovery – that is, rebounding emotionally and re-establishing intimacy after conflict to achieve other important goals, such as parenting. The harmful effects of conflict between parents on children are most evident when it ends with continued negativity or avoidance rather than intimacy and resolution.

We’re conducting a comprehensive longitudinal family study to test the pivotal role conflict recovery should play in determining whether inter-parental conflict has benefits for both adults and children.

For adults, conflict engagement and recovery are jointly necessary to sustain relationship quality. It’s healthy to engage with, and address, the problem and then take things back to normal, alleviating any ongoing stress and restoring intimacy and security in the aftermath.

Our programme is testing whether conflict engagement combined with conflict recovery reveals family security in the face of inevitable conflict and fosters direct problem solving (versus avoidance, helplessness) and adaptive emotion expression and regulation (versus suppression, dysregulation) in children.

We believe this new research within the School of Psychology offers valuable new insight into cultivating family wellbeing by exposing the role of conflict recovery in sustaining inter-parental relationships and enriching children’s development.

First published in UniNews, December 2017.