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magazine home > archives > winter 2002 > features

For kids, good health is crucial. Most know to brush their teeth and eat their vegetables, but what can children do to support good mental health? One U of M assistant professor is studying the effect conflict has on social development.

Family Matters
by Kristen Epler

Kitzmann with children

Dr. 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 effectively.

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 divorce-related problems.

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."

Grad student working with family
Psychology 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 says.

"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 effectively.

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 at computer

Dr. 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 effectively.

"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."

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