Method for examining children's beliefs about the functional role played by defensive interpersonal behaviour

Michael A. Westerman, Catherine Eubanks-Carter, Nancy Corral Ziebert, Elena Jeffries, Thomas J. Cosgrove

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The goal of this study was to develop a method for examining children's expectations about the short-term consequences of defensive interpersonal behaviour. We employed the theory of interpersonal defence (Dahmen & Westerman, in press; Westerman, 1998, 2005; Westerman & Prieto, 2006), an interpersonal reconceptualization of defence processes, as the framework for this method. We developed a two-part procedure for eliciting children's responses to closed-ended and open-ended questions about interpersonal vignettes presented in storyboard format, and we employed this method in a preliminary investigation with a sample of 62 intellectually gifted boys and girls aged 7-8 and 10-11. The results showed that the participants understood that defensive interpersonal behaviours affect the likelihood that feared and wished-for short-term outcomes will occur. Participants demonstrated that they understood that people behave defensively in order to avoid feared consequences and nondefensively in order to pursue wished-for outcomes. Findings also indicated that older participants understood that a person is more likely to behave defensively in highly conflict-ridden situations. The results suggest that our method provides the basis for research that complements previous studies of children's understanding of how intrapsychic defence mechanisms regulate a person's affective experience. Future research using this method could investigate the role of beliefs about defensive behaviour in the development of behaviour problems.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)293-311
Number of pages19
JournalBritish Journal of Developmental Psychology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 2007

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Developmental Neuroscience


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