Longitudinal Transmission of Conflict Management Styles Across Inter-Parental and Adolescent Relationships

Soundry Staats


Soundry Staats, Utrecht University, The Netherlands
Inge E. van der Valk, Utrecht University, The Netherlands
Wim H. J. Meeus, Utrecht University and Tilburg University, The Netherlands
Susan J. T. Branje, Utrecht University, The Netherlands

Learning how to manage conflicts appropriately is an important developmental task for adolescents, and is related to their psychosocial functioning. The main context for adolescents to learn and practice effective conflict management skills is the family. Especially, inter-parental and parent–adolescent relationships would be important sources from which adolescents learn how to manage conflicts in other relationships, such as those with friends and romantic partners. Adolescents can observe conflict management styles that are used during inter-parental disputes and practice conflict management styles in relationships with their parents. Subsequently, they can use these observed and practiced styles in conflicts with friends and romantic partners. However, the processes according to which this transmission of conflict management takes place were understudied in research to date. Therefore, we longitudinally investigated transmission of conflict management styles across inter–parental, adolescent–parent, adolescent–friend, and adolescent–partner relationships.

In this study, we used four waves of data from the ongoing longitudinal study Research on Adolescent Development and Relationships (RADAR). In total, 799 Dutch middle-to-late adolescents (Mage t1 = 15.80; 54% boys) and their parents reported on their own use of three conflict management styles: positive problem solving, conflict engagement, and withdrawal, by completing the Conflict Resolution Style Inventory. Adolescents reported on the conflict management styles they used in conflicts with their mother, father, best friend, and romantic partner, and both mothers and fathers reported on the conflict management styles they utilized in conflicts with their partner. For each conflict management style separately, we performed path analyses with cross-lagged effects.

Our findings indicated transmission of adolescent conflict management styles in relationships with parents to relationships with friends and romantic partners. Positive problem solving and conflict engagement utilized by adolescents in conflicts with parents were significantly, positively related to, respectively, adolescent positive problem solving and conflict engagement in relationships with friends 1 year later and relationships with partners 2 years later. No significant longitudinal effects emerged with regard to withdrawal. For all three conflict management styles, the results yielded no mediation of adolescent-parent relationships between inter-parental and adolescent-friend/partner relationships. Furthermore, no significant differences were found between boys and girls in the transmission of conflict management.

The study showed that the way adolescents manage conflicts with parents predicts how they handle conflicts later on in relationships outside the family. As adolescents’ conflict management style is prospectively related to their psychosocial and relational functioning, the results of the current study implicate that it is important to monitor and address adolescent conflict management in relationships with parents, so that constructive conflict management styles are utilized by adolescents in relationships with parents and in later friendships and romantic relationships.

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