Factors Impacting Family Conflict & Decision Making

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

Conflict is a normal part of most families' lives together, and it can play a role in how and when different kinds of decisions get made. This lesson discusses what conflict and decision making have to do with each other in the context of family life.

Decision Making and Conflict in Families

Think about a time you had to make a big decision along with people in your family. Maybe you were thinking about whether to move to a new town or where to go on summer vacation. Maybe it was a more stressful topic, such as how to best care for an aging relative.

Regardless of the specific content of the decision, the process of decision making can sometimes lead to or be fueled by conflict, or disagreement and tension, between different family members. Why is decision making so often fraught with struggle? What are some ways for working through the conflicts that arise in family decision making?

Values and Beliefs

When we make big decisions, we bring certain aspects of ourselves to bear on the situation. Most notably, we draw on our values, our deepest, most-core underlying beliefs about how things work and how things ought to be.

Because many of us develop value systems in the context of our family, we often share values within a family. However, our values are also impacted by our temperament, personal experiences, and relationships with others outside a family.

This can lead to conflict in decision making. For example, if you and your siblings are trying to decide on care for your aging mother, you might believe that she should be cared for in your home; you value family connections and intimate, personal care.

Your brother might value boundaries and professionalism, and he might feel safer and more comfortable placing her in an assisted living facility.

Your value systems thus come into conflict, and you have to work through this conflict in order to make the best decision about your mother's care.

Authority and Power

Many families have explicit and implicit hierarchies of authority and power that also impact decision making. This tends to happen most notably when people of different ages within one family are making a decision together. For example, parents make decisions on behalf of their children all the time. Sometimes, children resent or disagree with these decisions, noting what to them seems like an unfair power differential.

Power discrepancies also happen among adults in families, though, and people with less power to affect decisions often end up feeling oppressed and resentful. This, in turn, exacerbates conflict around the decision.

Material Factors

There are also material, financial factors that can come into play when a family is trying to make a decision. Material factors can come into contact with authority and power, as well as with values.

For instance, a family might be contemplating moving to a town where the cost of living is lower and they can thus save more money for the children's education. This might be aligned with parental values of frugality and education as a top priority.

Children might prefer life in the expensive city and resent their parents for bringing their power to bear on a decision that affects the children's social and emotional lives. However, the material factors might come to be the ultimate deciding point in this decision. Then, the question becomes one of dealing with feelings of anger, resentment, and confusion that result once a decision is made.

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