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Thesis defences

PhD Oral Exam - Saskia Ferrar, Psychology

Conflict dynamics in mother-child and sibling dyads: The interplay between observed behavior and emotional expression and links with childre's socioemotional development

Date & time

Friday, October 9, 2020 (all day)


This event is free


School of Graduate Studies


Daniela Ferrer



When studying for a doctoral degree (PhD), candidates submit a thesis that provides a critical review of the current state of knowledge of the thesis subject as well as the student’s own contributions to the subject. The distinguishing criterion of doctoral graduate research is a significant and original contribution to knowledge.

Once accepted, the candidate presents the thesis orally. This oral exam is open to the public.


In a series of two observational studies, the present dissertation examined the interplay between emotional expressions and behavior during conflict between children and their family members. Conflict discussions were observed at two developmental periods (preadolescence and adolescence) and in two types of relationships (mother-child and sibling), to assess how family members respond to their own and their partners’ emotional expressions. Within-family similarities in responses to negative emotions as well as links with youths’ socioemotional development were also examined.

The participants in the two present studies were drawn from an ongoing forty-year longitudinal study of families in Montréal, Québec. In Study 1, preadolescents (aged 9 to 13 years) were observed during conflict discussions with their mothers, and questionnaire measures of their temperament and socioemotional functioning were collected at one time point prior (aged 6 to 10 years) and one time point subsequent (aged 11 to 16 years) to the observational measurements. In Study 2, early adolescents (aged 12 to 15 years) were observed during conflict discussions with their siblings and with their mothers. In both studies, participants’ verbal conflict behaviors and emotional expressions were coded continuously. Time-window sequential analysis was used to identify how participants responded to their own and their interaction partners’ emotional expressions. In Study 1, across-dyad differences in responses to negative emotions were associated with youths’ socioemotional functioning over time, and in Study 2, within-family similarities in responses to negative emotions were examined.

Results from both studies indicated that overall, family members escalated conflict more (i.e., disagreed and confronted) and made more assertive (i.e., analytic) remarks when they appeared angry (i.e., displayed frowning/upset affect), and were more conciliatory and avoidant when they appeared sad. Neutral affect predicted the most conflict de-escalating behavior (i.e., analytic and conciliatory remarks), while positive affect promoted both de-escalating behavior and avoidance. Links between individuals’ behavior and their interaction partners’ emotional expressions were generally similar, yet weaker than responses to their own emotions. Differences between mother-child versus sibling conflict patterns, as well as between mother-child conflict before and after the transition to adolescence, suggested that family conflict dynamics are influenced by relationship type as well as developmental timing. Results from Study 1 also indicated that mothers’ tendency to escalate conflict when angry was associated with difficult child characteristics in earlier childhood and socioemotional difficulties in adolescence. Further, maternal and child de-escalation following sadness predicted socioemotional adjustment in adolescence. Furthermore, Study 2 identified many within-family similarities in responses to negative emotions, yet relatively few similarities in how youth responded across the two conflict contexts (i.e., with their mothers and with their siblings).

Findings are discussed in relation to goal-based theories of emotion, as well as dynamic systems, transactional, and family systems perspectives on child development. The present dissertation makes a substantive contribution to our understanding of family conflict dynamics across the transition to adolescence, by illustrating how constructive and destructive conflict is linked to several contextual variables, including emotion, child characteristics, and relationship type. In addition, they show how individual differences in the management of negative emotions are tied to youths’ socioemotional development and to family functioning. Taken together, the present findings have a number of clinical implications that can help inform interventions aimed at promoting adaptive family conflict communication and psychological well-being.

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