Although they may only look like they're arguing over a video game, when children conflict with their peers they are often trying to achieve a wide variety of goals. For instance, a goal could be instrumental (getting to use the video game), relationship-oriented (trying to stay friends with the other kid), self-protection oriented (trying to avoid getting hurt in the conflict) or even retaliation-oriented.
Now researchers from North Dakota State and Duke universities report in the May/June issue of the journal Child Development that children's goals change significantly if they face obstacles to resolving a conflict on a first or second try, and that children who already have problems with their peers show antisocial changes to their goals.
Previous research on goals found that highly aggressive or highly submissive children rejected by their peer group tend to select goals that work against maintaining good relationships with other children. In this study, the researchers explored whether these poorly adjusted children might initially start out in a conflict situation with a healthy goal orientation, but change to negative goals when they have trouble resolving the conflict.
To test their theory, the researchers asked 252 fourth- and fifth-grade children how they would react in hypothetical conflicts involving a same-sex peer. After providing their initial strategy, children were asked to rate their efforts to achieve certain goals with that strategy. Then researchers asked the children what they would do if their first strategy didn't work. After the children provided a second strategy, they were again asked to rate their efforts to reach certain goals with that strategy. Finally, the children were asked what strategies and goals they'd follow if their second strategy didn't work.
The researchers found that aggressive and submissive children who had problems with their peers exhibited several antisocial changes to their goals, including an increased desire to retaliate and a decreased desire to attain relationship-oriented objectives.
They were also less likely than more-accepted children to forgo instrumental goals (e.g., getting to have a book that both children wanted). Additionally, children who exhibited antisocial changes to their goals were more likely to use aggression, assertion and manipulation to resolve conflicts.
"These findings highlight the important role that ongoing changes in children's goals have for their social adjustment," said first author Wendy Troop-Gordon, PhD, assistant professor at North Dakota State University in Fargo. "One implication is that peer-rejected children may need social skills interventions that focus on maintaining adaptive combinations of goals during challenging social interactions, such as conflicts with peers."