Younger children believe a disagreement is over when angry behaviour stops while older ones understand that resolving conflict depends on one or both parents changing their beliefs, says Professor Jenny Jenkins of the Institute of Child Study at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto. "While observing a dispute between parents, a five-year-old thinks one parent is right and the other is wrong and that the dispute is over when the loud, cross words end and the cross, angry faces turn into 'uncross' faces. Older children, between seven and nine, believe a dispute has been settled when one or both parents have a change of opinion."
To illustrate different kinds of parental conflict, Jenkins and graduate student Janice Buccioni read stories to 60 children and asked them about story characters, thoughts and feelings. They discovered that younger children think more 'behaviourly' -- observing and analysing angry behaviour -- while older children understand parents' behaviour and emotions as arising from their internal goals.
While there is no need to hide disagreements that are a normal part of any family environment, parents need to be aware that children of different ages will understand events differently, Jenkins said. "We need to let them know that, as parents, we sometimes have different views but that we've decided on the best thing to do and we're not upset anymore. With older kids, it's helpful to explain both sides of an issue and how a resolution was reached if a child is troubled by a conflict, while young children need to know that parents have stopped being angry with one another."
Their research was supported by a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.
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