Delving into family feuds  

Valedictorian and Gold Medal winner studies sibling conflicts

By Anna Sarkissian

Holly Recchia delivers her valedictory address during the Arts and Science Convocation on Nov. 13. Magnifying glass

Holly Recchia delivers her valedictory address during the Arts and Science Convocation on Nov. 13.

Recent graduate Holly Recchia has reason to celebrate. Not only was she named valedictorian for the Faculty of Arts and Science, she was also awarded the Governor General's Gold Medal for the top graduate student at convocation on Nov. 13.

"I was surprised, happy and humbled. It was a huge honour," she told the Journal during a telephone interview from Salt Lake City, where she has taken a position as a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Psychology at the University of Utah.

Of course, she misses Montreal and her loved ones. "But I'm looking out the window and I'm seeing mountains," she said. "I'm taking advantage of the easy access to the outdoors."

During her convocation address at Place des Arts, she talked about adjusting to new responsibilities and expectations.

"All of us are facing these transitions right now, and if you're like me, thinking about where you're going is taking up a lot of space in your head," she told her fellow students. She realized that she has to take the time now to recognize what she has accomplished. "If we don't honour these milestones as they come along, it is too easy to let them pass us by."

Pictured are just some of the 1 670 new degree holders at the Nov. 13 convocation ceremonies. Magnifying glass

Pictured are just some of the 1 670 new degree holders at the Nov. 13 convocation ceremonies.

After completing an Honours BA in psychology and applied studies at the University of Waterloo, Recchia came to Concordia in 2003 for her master's in psychology at the Centre for Research in Human Development.

She has a slew of publications, conference presentations and fellowships to her name, has served as editor of the CRDH Dialogue Bulletin, and was a student representative for the Canadian Psychological Association. Recchia wrapped up her PhD last spring with a thesis entitled Explaining Variability in Sibling Conflict Resolution Strategies During Middle Childhood.

"I just find it fascinating how people have dramatically different perspectives on the world. This is especially obvious in the case of conflict, when two people can give such different meaning to the same events," she said.

Her dissertation examined why some siblings resolve conflicts in constructive ways while others use more destructive means. Recchia visited 62 families’ homes twice as part of her research and interviewed children aged four to 10 and their primary caregivers.

She found several factors influenced the outcome of a disagreement: whether children learned positive resolution strategies from their parents, the characteristics of the individual children and their level of social understanding, and the way children interpret and tell stories about conflicts – for instance, whose fault they think it is can influence how they handle the situation.

When parents got involved, the solutions were more constructive. But she found that children as young as four years old could tell a coherent story about their fights and reach a compromise.

This year, she is taking what she learned about siblings and applying it to interactions with peers.

"You choose your friends but not your siblings so the differences between these relationships are interesting," she said. Her research will look at how kids and their mothers co-construct meaning while discussing children’s conflicts with others.

Ultimately, Recchia would like to see her work inform interventions that promote children's constructive conflict resolution skills. She concedes it is not always easy to translate basic research and theory into practice.

I haven’t gone into academia for prestige or fame. You really have to love it," she said. "There are always hard days where you have to force yourself to sit in front of the computer. But then I read an interesting journal article that inspires me to keep going."


Concordia University