Katherine Kitzmann enjoys working with children. She
says she wants to use her research on family conflict
to develop programs at The U of M to help others.
"Nobody ever said it was going to be easy."
You've probably heard this phrase before. Conflict sneaks
into our lives nearly every day in one form or another. It
is commonplace, and yet many people can't deal with problems
Dr. Katherine Kitzmann, University of Memphis assistant
professor of psychology, has been fascinated by the role that
disaccord plays in relationships. An authority on family conflict,
she knows the path to peace often lies in disagreement.
"Family conflict is something that everybody can relate
to," Kitzmann says. "When handled well, conflict
can lead to compromise and increased intimacy in relationships.
When handled poorly, conflict can interfere with family members'
ability to function effectively."
Kitzmann focuses on children in her family-conflict studies
at The U of M. Curious as to how children cope with divorce
and other family-related traumas, the assistant professor
studies the effects that conflict has on family dynamics.
Through her research, she has discovered that marital conflict
surrounding a divorce is a major contributor to children's
Children from homes fraught with destructive family conflict
have a wide range of problems, Kitzmann notes. Youth who are
exposed to high levels of poorly resolved conflict will be
ill-prepared to handle problems among their peers, she says.
"Kids who have trouble managing conflict are at risk,"
Kitzmann says. "They can become too aggressive or they
avoid conflict at all costs. At either extreme, there are
real problems, and with time, these problems get even worse."
Kitzmann uses several methods to study the effects of family
conflict on children. One method involves engaging families
in a simple problem-solving task. Children and their parents
have to work together to resolve a conflict in a way that
is satisfactory to all.
Dr. Barbara Ellen Smith, a U of M associate professor of
sociology and the director for the Center for Research on
Women, participated in Kitzmann's study after she and her
two sons, Richard and Kyle Peterson, moved to Memphis in 1995.
Richard, then 9, and Kyle, then 11, filled out a questionnaire
and were told to plan a birthday party on a limited budget
with their mother. From behind a two-way mirror, Kitzmann
observed and videotaped the three while they went about organizing
activities, compiling a guest list and creating a menu on
a tight budget.
"The only conflicts that came up were issues of budget,"
Smith says. "A trade-off had to be made between doing
an expensive activity with fewer kids, or having a larger
group of kids doing less-expensive activities. There also
was an issue of whom to invite."
During the process, Smith says she tried to help her sons
think about why they should invite some children and not others.
The three also took into consideration which groups of kids
would get along better. Smith said her experiences in the
study were beneficial.
"The process really made me more thoughtful about the
way we make decisions in our family," she says. "It
encourages parents to think and talk about choices and values
that go into making decisions. It can also help older children
to be thoughtful and alerted to the idea that there are conscious
processes that go into decision-making."
graduate student Leslie Nicholson (right) walks a family
through one of the Kitzmann-designed family-conflict exercises.
Graduate students have gained valuable experience under
Kitzmann's guidance both as a researcher and a professor.
Kitzmann usually recruits families from The U of M's Campus
School. Most of the children are in grades three through six,
and range in age from 7 to 12. Participating families vary
in race, ethnicity, family structure and social class.
U of M graduate students also benefit from the study as
they acquire real experience in an actual lab setting.
"Dr. Kitzmann knows her students well and would do anything
for them," says Maggie Anderson (BA '00, MS '01), who
is assisting with the family conflict study. "She has
really pushed me to think, to write better, to research others'
work, and to express my interests and capabilities in a way
I never had before."
As part of the study, children who participate in the initial
family problem-solving task are asked to complete a similar
task with their peers at school. Kitzmann wants to see what
strategies the kids will use to deal with conflict in the
classroom. She also observes these strategies to see if children
imitate their parents' methods of dealing with conflict.
"It doesn't seem to be the case that kids are imitating
certain strategies," Kitzmann says. "It seems more
the case that kids develop certain expectations or attitudes
about conflict, and these general expectations may shape the
particular strategies they use."
Staying calm is a key factor in healthy resolution, Kitzmann
"Children from high-conflict homes show more distress
than other children when conflict develops," she says.
"When these children are emotionally upset, they can't
respond to the conflict effectively. They may become aggressive
in response to the conflict or withdraw from it. Both strategies
can be problematic."
Kitzmann says that both research and society focus more
on overly aggressive children, but her research also focuses
on passive children.
"I think the kid who avoids conflict at all costs is
in a really bad spot," she says. "They can't speak
up about what they need, and they might have problems being
assertive when they need to be heard."
Kitzmann says these kids usually appear well-behaved, but
they suffer from the inability to handle conflict with others
Another way Kitzmann has tried to understand the role of
family is through sibling studies. One such study at The U
of M's Campus School compared children with one sibling to
children without siblings.
The two groups were neck-and-neck on nearly every measure
of social competence, with one exception: Those without siblings
had a slightly higher risk of being an aggressor or of being
an aggressor's target. Kitzmann says that having a sibling
gives children practice at resolving conflicts.
"Most research suggests that the most helpful sibling
relationships are those that have a good balance between warmth
and conflict," she says.
Kitzmann's research is starting to gain attention.
She received a New Faculty Research Initiative Award
and a Faculty Research Grant from The U of M in 1998
and 1999, respectively. In 2000, she was the recipient
of a grant from the National Science Foundation.
Kitzmann is one to "take her work home with her,"
so to speak, Anderson says. That is, she is able to practice
what she preaches in her relationships with students and co-workers.
"Dr. Kitzmann is one of the most laid-back, fun, knowledgeable
and encouraging professors in the department," Anderson
says. "I would trust her with my own family someday in
the future, and that is saying a lot!"
Currently, Kitzmann is making plans for future research projects
at The U of M Psychology Department's Center for Excellence.
Kitzmann, who once received the New Faculty Research Initiative
Award, would like to develop programs about dealing with conflict
"In academia, we have a tendency to get lost in our
books," she says. "I really enjoy doing research
with children and families, and learning about conflict as
it actually unfolds in people's relationships. It's also a
great chance for me to teach people about how research can
help us solve important, everyday problems."