A new study has some reassuring news for moms and dads who feel they're in constant conflict with their toddlers. It's the quality of that conflict, not the quantity that affects the child's healthy emotional and social development.
"It doesn't matter if you're arguing every 2 minutes with your kid or every 20 minutes," Dr Deborah Laible of Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania told Reuters Health. In fact, Laible and her colleagues found the frequency of arguments between moms and toddlers in their study ranged from 4 to 55 times an hour - but the frequency had nothing to do with the quality of their relationship.
The toddler years are a peak time for parent-child conflict, Laible and her team note. Some child development experts suggest that this conflict can help children learn important emotional lessons in addition to "social and moral norms." The frequency and quality of this conflict, they add, varies dramatically among mother-toddler pairs.
To investigate what factors might contribute to these differences, the researchers observed 64 mothers and their 30-month-old children who participated in a series of tasks in the laboratory. The women tape recorded their dinner-time interactions at home 6 months later.
The lab tasks involved typical situations that might give rise to various types of arguments; for example, the mothers were instructed to keep the child away from a shelf full of enticing toys, to ask the children to put away toys they had been playing with, and to discuss past incidents involving both negative and positive emotions.
Compromise strengthens relationship
The child-parent pairs who were the most securely attached - meaning that the child trusted that the mother would be available and would respond sensitively, especially when the child experienced negative emotions - were more likely to engage in constructive arguments.
Conflicts were typically resolved, with mother and child justifying their point of view, and compromises were frequently reached. Both mother and child were less likely to aggravate the argument by insisting on their point of view without explaining it, teasing, or engaging in other negative behaviour.
"If they're justifying and compromising it seems to be related not only to the quality of the relationship but how well the child is adjusting in terms of social and emotional development," Laible said.
A child's temperament also played a role in conflict quality. Children who were highly active or who frequently exhibited negative emotions were less likely to justify themselves in arguments, and more likely to aggravate conflicts. The same was true of their mothers, and conflicts between these pairs were less likely to be resolved.
While a child's temperament is largely innate, Laible noted, parents can help steer their children away from less positive traits. And parents can also work toward engaging in more constructive conflict with their children by justifying their point of view, compromising, and even, in some cases giving in, she added. "You don't always have to win the argument." – (Anne Harding/Reuters Health)
SOURCE: Child Development, March/April 2008.
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