How Do Children Manage Conflicts? A Young PhD Student Has The Answers.


Tamm’s work concentrates on understanding children’s and adolescents’ conflict management strategies within peer and parent-child relationships. Although studies frequently examine either individual or situational influence, her research shows that these two types of characteristics work interdependently.

In order to collect data, she presented hundreds*of children and teenagers with different conflict situations and explored whether various individual (e.g., sex, priorities, existence of behavioural problems) and situational factors (type of conflict, partner’s behaviour) have an effect on the way children and teenagers solve their conflicts. Overall, Tamm distinguishes between three ways of solving a conflict: prosocial, which is oriented towards finding a compromise; self-assertive, which is oriented towards individual interests, and, finally, avoidance, which is oriented towards avoiding conflict by withdrawal or submission.

The results are both expected and somewhat surprising. Research showed that pre-schoolers and teenagers tend to choose their strategies based on the specific conflict, as self-assertive strategies were used for more severe and provocative conflicts—for example, fighting over a toy among children or gossiping in adolescence—and compromises or submissions were preferred in case of easier conflicts, (e.g., choosing what kind of music to listen to). Also, children were likely to respond to their peers’ aggression with aggressive strategies and to their prosociality with prosocial strategies. Individual factors, however, had no impact whatsoever, meaning that the level of behavioural problems, a child’s age and gender did not play a part in managing a conflict.

The latter might seem somewhat surprising, as we tend to think of girls as more willing to compromise and of boys as apt to fight more. For Tamm, it is evident that this is not the case because only occasional differences between the sexes were revealed: for example, when children were presented with a situation where two boys liked the same girl or vice versa. Girls seemed to prefer compromise or no action while boys chose negotiation.

“Research shows that these differences are likely to appear in competitive situations. Competition is more present in boys’ games, for example, but they don’t see it as conflict per se. Instead of causing problems, it brings them closer together. Negotiation offers more competition than compromise,” explains Tamm. She points out that although girls and boys can choose different strategies, their intentions might still be similar—it’s the way of achieving them that is somewhat different. For Tamm, this part of the results, together with the children’s high willingness to intervene when someone is bullied, is the most crucial and fascinating part of her research.

However, the question of aims did not only arise in the case of differences between girls and boys, but also between teenagers with various backgrounds and nationalities. Tamm presented Russian, Estonian and German teenagers with a situation, where they are planning to spend time with friends, but their parents ask them to stay at home and help with housework. Data showed that most German teens would still go out, while most Russian adolescents would stay home. Estonians would choose either way. “These results are exciting, but it’s difficult to explain what lies behind them. Still, when we asked teenagers why they chose to stay at home, we saw some differences. For example, the amount of children who felt an obligation to their parents or were afraid to be punished was clearly biggest among the German teenagers. Russian teens, on the other hand, explained their choice by valuing their family and parents,“ explains Tamm.

This kind of value-based approach is quite unique in child conflict management studies, says Dr Brett Laursen, Professor of Psychology and Director of Graduate Studies in Florida Atlantic University, who has been studying children for more than 30 years. Although Tamm’s approach was more neutral, Laurson argues that it’s something parents should take in account, as it shows that some values have better outcomes than others.

Anni Tamm. From Anni Tamm's personal photo collection
Anni Tamm. From Anni Tamm’s personal photo collection

However, one should be careful when drawing conclusions from cross-cultural differences, he claims when asked about possible complications in Tamm’s study. “The samples were quite small, especially when it comes to Russian or German teens. Also, there might be differences in means, but overall the findings in children’s conflict management strategies are quite universal,” explains Laursen.

Yet, these kind of national differences are evident all over the world and have been mainly studied by U.S. researchers. Traditional theories claim that a person’s conflict solving strategies are in line with the type of culture and society they are living in: if it’s individual, like in Estonia or Germany, for example, people are more oriented towards their individual interests and benefits, whereas in collectivistic societies, like Russia, people tend to prioritize the group’s interests first and they’re more willing to solve conflicts in a way which would not compromise their relationships.

Although this classification has been considered valid for years, Tamm draws our attention to another point of view that is gaining increasingly more acclaim: family-change theory developed by Istanbul-based professor Cigdem Kagitcibas. “Kagitcibas distinguishes between three family models. The first one is the model of interdependence, where family connectedness, conformity, and obedience are highly valued; the second is the model of independence, where a child’s self-enhancement and self-maximization are of high importance; and the third one is the synthesis of the two previous models, where both autonomy and relatedness are valued. Although due to urbanization and improved living conditions there is a general move towards adopting the third model, previous studies suggest that the cultural model of autonomy-relatedness is characteristic of Estonia, whereas Germans are more oriented towards independence and Russians towards interdependence,“ Tamm explains. Namely, Estonian adolescents tend to be more oriented towards mutuality, whereas Russian adolescents expressed a higher willingness to subordinate their self-interest to their friend’s interests when compared to their Estonian peers. Self-oriented reasons were suggested with about the same frequency among adolescents with different cultural backgrounds.

Yet, Tamm says there is a lot to study when she’s asked about the future. Her interest lies in conflict as a process: how it begins, how a person’s behaviour changes during conflict and what is the end result. “I would like to use observation methods with teenagers, so far these have been used mostly with pre-schoolers. It is not going to be easy—I am sure of it—the more so because most of their conflicts are about relationships; but if we set them up in a “lab” we can also research other types of conflicts.“

*Six different studies were involved, the smallest having 69 participants and the largest 900.

This article was supported by the European Regional Development Fund through Estonian Research Council.

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