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Conflict in Family Communication  

John P. Caughlin and Emily Gerlikovski

Conflict is a common experience in families. Although conflicts can be intense, most conflicts in families are about mundane issues such as housework, social life, schoolwork, or hygiene. Families’ negotiations over even such mundane topics, however, have important implications. Through conflicts with other family members, children typically first learn about managing difficulties with others, and the skills they learn in such conflicts are important to their social lives beyond their families. Yet poorly managed conflicts that become more intense or personal can undermine the well-being of families and family members. Family conflicts are extremely complex, and understanding them requires analysis at multiple levels, including examining the individual family members, dyads and larger groups within the family, and the sociocultural context in which families are embedded. At the individual level, family members’ conflict behaviors (e.g., exhibiting positive affect vs. negative affect), conflict skills (e.g., whether they are able to resolve problems), and cognitions (e.g., whether they make generous attributions about other family members' intent during disputes) all are important for understanding the impact of family conflicts. Examining conflict from the dyadic and polyadic levels recognizes that there are important features of conflict that are only apparent with a broader perspective. Dyadic and polyadic constructs include patterns of behavior, conflict outcomes that apply to all family members involved, and beliefs shared by family members. There are also particular types of relationships within families that have salient conflicts which have drawn considerable scholarly attention, such as parent–child or parent–adolescent conflicts, conflicts between siblings, marital conflicts, and conflicts between co-parents. In addition, families experience various transitions, and the life course of families influences conflict. Some key periods for conflict are the early years of marriage, the period of launching children and empty nest, and a family member navigating the end of life. Finally, family conflicts occur in a larger sociocultural context in which societal events and conditions affect family conflict. Such contextual factors include broad social structures (e.g., societal-level power dynamics between men and women), financial conditions, different co-cultural groups within a country, cross-cultural differences, and major events such as the COVID-19 pandemic that have direct effects on families and also elicit dramatic social responses that affect families. Despite the complexities, it is important to understand family conflict because of its implications for the health and well-being of families and family members.