Chon Chuuk (‘People of the Mountain’), also called the Chuukese, are an Austronesian-speaking population of approximately 50,000 people native to the Caroline Islands in Chuuk State, Federated States of Micronesia. Of the 290 islands in Chuuk State, 40 are inhabited. Chuuk Lagoon, the population center, consists of high volcanic islands surrounded by a scattering of coral atolls stretching over thousands of square kilometers of ocean. There are several mutually intelligible regional dialects of the Chuukese language, and there are cultural variances by island region. Traditionally, Chon Chuuk obtained their diet through fishing, gathering marine and plant resources, and gardening (Gladwin and Sarason 1953). As more islanders entered the wage economy in the mid-twentieth century, however, imported foods became a source of nutrition and status (L. B. Marshall and Marshall 1980; F. X. Hezel 1987). Today, most families living in Chuuk Lagoon rely on cash-bought imported foods supplemented by local subsistence. The populations on the outer atolls still rely heavily on fishing and local agriculture but supplement their diet with imported foods.

Chon Chuuk, like many other colonized indigenous populations, have a high male-biased youth suicide rate that reached epidemic proportions in the early 1970’s (F. X. Hezel 1987). At the peak of the suicide epidemic during the 1980’s, there were almost 40 suicides per 100,000 and over half of all suicides were between the ages of 15-24 (F. X. Hezel 1989). By comparison, there were around 11 suicides per 100,000 in the United States during that same period (Lindsay Lee and Ortiz-Ospina 2019). Colonial interventionism and the monetization of the economy led to fundamental changes in family and village-level organization including the nuclearization of the family and the loss of traditional men’s meeting houses (uut) where adolescent male socialization occurred (Rubinstein 1992; F. X. Hezel 1987). Hezel has described Chuukese suicides as a tightly patterned response to conflict with elder family members, and a thorough collection of documented cases shows that conflicts between parents and children is the most frequent triggering event (F. X. Hezel 1984, 1989; Rubinstein 1995).

Although Hezel and Rubinstein have collected considerable data on cases of conflicts that lead to suicide, there has been less focus on the broad array of child responses to conflicts with parents that are far less devastating, yet far more common, than suicide. Nevertheless, understanding these common but less severe child responses could potentially illuminate the social dynamics that put some children at risk of a suicide attempt. One study that did examine 40 cases of interpersonal conflicts in Chon Chuuk adolescents found that the high rate of social problems among youths in this region resulted from intergenerational conflict within the family (Lowe 2003). Specifically, incongruence between the status-building activities of young men and women and the needs of the family was a leading source of stress that could lead to ruptures in the parent-child relationship (Lowe 2003).

A typical response to such conflicts is for the child to run off, avoiding their family for a period ranging from a few minutes to a few days or weeks depending on the intensity of the child’s hurt or anger. Such responses are seen as expressions of Amwunumwun, a spectrum of behavioral strategies involving withdrawal and self-abasement whereby an individual distances herself from others as a means of releasing strong negative emotions in a societal context where social norms dictate against directly confronting elders and other social superiors (F. X. Hezel 1987). Amwunumwun behaviors vary in severity from transient withdrawal to running away to suicide threats and even suicide death.

The present study builds off this previous ethnographic work on suicide, social conflict, and psychosocial stress among Chon Chuuk, examining conflicts between parents and children during the adolescent and young adult period and the spectrum of behavioral strategies offspring use to resolve conflicts. Social conflict is a widespread precursor to suicidal behavior (Kristen L. Syme, Garfield, and Hagen 2016; Kristen L. Syme and Hagen 2019), yet there is little research that explores what separates the few conflicts the lead to suicidality from the vast majority that do not.

Evolutionary theory of parent-offspring conflict

Parent-offspring conflict (POC) theory proposes that, in any sexually reproducing species, the genetic asymmetries in relatedness between parents and offspring produce asymmetrical interests in resource allocation, and “conflict is seen to be an expected feature of such relations” (Trivers 1974). A parent shares half its genes with all its offspring, whereas each offspring shares 100% of its genes with itself, half with its full siblings, and one quarter with its half siblings. Hence, the distribution of resources and other investment that maximizes a parent’s biological fitness does not necessarily maximize the fitness of each offspring. Conversely, the investment that would maximize the fitness of a particular offspring would not necessarily maximize the fitness of its parent nor of its siblings. In a recent theoretical treatment, this conflict is conceptualized as intragenomic conflict between supply genes expressed in the parent and demand genes expressed in offspring, and results show that lower levels of monogamy increase POC (Bossan, Hammerstein, and Koehncke 2013).

According to this theory, offspring are expected to bid for more resources than parents are willing to provide; therefore, offspring might try to deceive parents into providing more benefits than they genuinely need. Similarly, parents might try to manipulate individual offspring into maximizing the parents inclusive fitness at a cost to that offspring (Trivers 1974). Sibling conflict is a concomitant of POC because, like parents and offspring, each sibling is 100% related to itself but only related 50% to its full siblings and 25% to its half siblings.

In humans and other mammals, weaning conflict might be one example of POC (Trivers 1974). Whereas POC in many species is limited to periods of high parental provisioning in early life, humans have not only a long period of juvenile dependency relative to other mammals (Kaplan et al. 2000), but parents across all human societies invest in offspring into adulthood, including arranging marriages and assisting in the care of grandchildren (Hawkes et al. 1998; Sear, Mace, and McGregor 2000; Sear and Mace 2008). Thus, as Trivers highlights (Trivers 1974), POC can manifest into the adult reproductive period of offspring.

Arrangement of marriages by parents is widespread across cultures and is a source of disagreement between parents and offspring (Apostolou 2007). Offspring are predicted to value cues of genetic quality (e.g., physical attractiveness) more than their parents who are predicted to place a higher value on cues of in-group cooperation (e.g., shared cultural and religious background)–a hypothesis that is supported by a serious of studies (Buunk, Park, and Dubbs 2008; Apostolou 2015; Dubbs and Buunk 2010; Buunk and Solano 2010; Van den Berg et al. 2013; Dubbs, Buunk, and Taniguchi 2013). Other research indicates that parents and offspring might further disagree on the optimal degree of relatedness of a potential spouse. Analyzing Yanomamo data, Chagnon et al. (2017) found that although offspring who married close genetic relatives suffered inbreeding depression, these marriages yielded reproductive benefits for their parents, who had greater numbers of overall grandchildren.

It is important to distinguish conflicts of interest between parents and offspring from differences in knowledge (Trivers 1974). So far, our discussion has focused on conflicts of interest e.g., offspring benefiting from more investment than their parents are willing to provide. But some “conflicts” in the folk sense might not be due to conflicts of interest but instead be due to differences in knowledge. Parents often have knowledge about the physical and social environment that offspring have not yet acquired. Despite the child’s objections, for instance, a parent might insist that she learn to read because the parent knows that reading will be valuable in adulthood. Similarly, parents might be better judges of some aspects of an offspring’s potential mate based on their greater experience with mating.

Parent-offspring cooperation

In all species, parent and offspring “cooperate” to ensure the offspring’s successful development and survival. Because humans have such a long juvenile period, and typically live with their parents for many years, there is great scope for extensive cooperative interactions. Unlike most other species, human offspring provide alloparental care, for example, which has been shown to have a positive impact on health and survivorship of their siblings (Helfrecht and Meehan 2016; Kramer 2005; Breeding 2009; Sear et al. 2002; Sear and Mace 2008). Older sisters, in particular, often play an active role in caring for younger siblings, and in some societies, young girls begin acquiring childcare skills through sibling investment by ages 5 and 6 (Weisner et al. 1977; Weisner 1987; Zukow-Goldring 2002; LeVine et al. 1996). Human offspring are therefore both consumers and producers, and children in some ecological contexts begin supplementing their diets and contributing resources to the household through foraging and hunting small game as early as ages 5-7 (Bird and Bird 2017; Tucker and Young 2017). Chon Chuuk children are no different and begin assisting in childcare and learning subsistence techniques well before puberty (Fischer 1950; Gladwin and Sarason 1953).

Nevertheless, where there is cooperation between organisms with divergent interests, there is also a potential for cheating and exploitation. Therefore, POC in humans can entail conflicts over the time and resources parents allocate to offspring, as well as the time and resources offspring allocate to the family, e.g., as ‘helpers at the nest’ (Turke 1988).

Conflicts in adolescents and young adults in Chuuk

Bogin divides human development into five stages: 1) infancy (early childhood), 2) childhood (post-weaning), 3) juvenility (a period of feeding independence preceding reproductive maturity), 4) adolescence (the onset of sexual maturity accompanied by rapid growth spurts), and 5) adulthood. POC can occur during any stage of human development as long as parents and offspring maintain a cooperative relationship. In the present study, we focus on POC during adolescence and early adulthood. These stages are of interest because they are associated with heightened risk for suicidal behavior, substance abuse, and physical aggression among Chon Chuuk (Rubinstein 1992; F. X. Hezel 1987, 1989; M. Marshall 1979).

Adolescence is marked by physiological changes associated with sexual maturation such as ovulation and breast development in females and an increase in testicular size in males. The adolescent transition is also associated with cognitive changes including enhancements in abstract thinking, thought processing speed, and perspective taking (Bogin et al. 2018; Smetana and Villalobos 2009; Yurgelun-Todd 2007). Adolescents must navigate new social challenges including short or long-term mating relationships, sexual competition and status seeking, and cooperative economic activity. Males, in particular, might also form relationships with same-sex older adults for apprenticeship training in subsistence, magico-religious, economic, and political tasks and roles.

According to early ethnographies, Chon Chuuk regard adolescence as a transitional period between childhood and adulthood. Young males and females were generally not expected to be as economically productive as adults and induction into adult roles was gradual (Gladwin and Sarason 1953). The ethnographic literature does not describe any event that uniquely marked men’s and women’s entrance into adulthood. Although women tended to marry by age 20 and young men shortly after 20, first marriages were often unstable in the past (Ward Hunt Goodenough and Skoggard 1999; Caughey 1977). Ward H. Goodenough (1949), and later M. Marshall (1979), reported that many men’s skills and esoteric lore were not learned until middle age, and young men were often dismissed as too preoccupied with alcohol and women to hold authority. Many young men occupied a more or less adolescent position until their late twenties or early thirties.

Before World War II, a Chon Chuuk boy upon reaching puberty moved out of the domestic house (imw) and into the lineage men’s house (uut) where the unmarried men of the lineage resided in accordance with proscriptions against opposite sex siblings sleeping under the same roof (Ward H. Goodenough 1974; Gladwin and Sarason 1953). The uut served as the canoe and meeting house for the lineage and was the site where older males trained younger males in folklore and the art of warfare (Ward Hunt Goodenough 1951). Adolescent and unmarried males took part in lineage-level subsistence activities such as fishing and maintaining corporately held gardens (F. X. Hezel 1987; Rubinstein 1992). Adolescent females, on the other hand, continued to live in the imw with the women of the lineage and their husbands, assisting in childcare, subsistence, and other household activities. But, the Second World War drastically disrupted village life across Micronesia, and men’s meeting houses fell into disuse and altered young men’s socialization.

In Chuuk, POC often arises over conflicts concerning offspring status-building activities. For young men, activities that increase status among one’s peers, such as drinking, fighting, and risky late-night sexual rendezvous, decrease the status of one’s family within the community. The status-building activities of young women often take place at church and tend to be more socially acceptable such as bringing food and drink to share at meetings (Weisner and Lowe 2005). In either case, however, hanging out with friends decreases time invested in assisting the family with its needs, and money spent on food, beverages, or alcohol is money not spent on household needs (Lowe 2003). The evidence suggests that these conflicts are heightened in periurban regions of Chuuk where families are dependent on youth to contribute to household subsistence, but the supplementation of the diet with store-bought items frees up some time for adolescents and young adults to spend in unsupervised peer activities (F. X. Hezel 1987; Rubinstein 1987). Unlike the urban youth who contribute little to household subsistence and rural youth who have little time to spend in unsupervised peer activities, periurban youth may feel pulled in both directions. Parents and offspring each stand to benefit from the offspring’s investment in the household, but conflict over the optimal amount of investment offspring should commit. Likewise, parents stand to benefit if offspring status-building enhances offspring fitness but conflict over the time allocation, level of risk, and social acceptability of these activities.

Conflict resolution strategies

One strategy for resolving conflicts in one’s favor is to impose costs through the threat or use of violence. Although much evolutionary literature focuses on the use of physical violence between competitors who have opposing interests in a zero-sum game (e.g., competitors over mates or resources), physical violence also occurs between those who have shared interests. Among Tsimane forager-horticulturalists, for example, men use physical violence to stifle wives’ protests against the diversion of household resources to the husbands’ paramours (Stieglitz et al. 2012, 2011), and in many societies parents use corporal punishment to deter undesirable behaviors in children such as refusing to share or cooperate with siblings (Ember and Ember 2005; Levinson 1981).

Sell et al. and others have found that upper body strength in males positively predicts proneness to physical aggression and anger in Western and non-Western populations [Sell (2005); Sell, Tooby, and Cosmides (2009); Sell, Hone, and Pound (2012); Hess et al. (2010); Archer and Thanzami (2007). The strategic use of physical aggression, therefore, is only available to those individuals who are formidable enough to pose a threat to their opponents, because the use of physical force by a weaker party invites harm. It is not surprising then that the direction of physical force moves from males to females, parents to small children, and groups to individuals. Thus, an individual who is able to form a coalition is also at an advantage. For instance, coalitions can form among groups of close genetic male kin who share an interest in each other’s fitness (Macfarlan et al. 2018; Chagnon 1979). Another route to power is resource holding potential (RHP)–the ability of an individual to offer or withhold resources under her control (Sosis, Feldstein, and Hill 1998; J. M. Smith and Parker 1976; Parker 1974). We can measure RHP in terms of wealth, status, physical attractiveness, among other possibilities. Resources relevant to RHP can be either extrinsic goods like cash, or the individual herself can be a valuable resource as a social partner, mate, or kin member. These different means of obtaining power reinforce each other. Those with greater fighting ability will likely be preferred as coalition members, and those who can obtain resources by force will likely have greater RHP. Nevertheless, these are each separable features of a dominance strategy.

Many conflicts can be resolved by providing information. In humans, verbal persuasion is a potential tactic for conflict resolution, but if antagonists have conflicts of interest, there are incentives to provide deceptive information and therefore to mistrust its veracity. Nevertheless, if the information were true, it might resolve the conflict. In humans, a child in a food-insecure family might ask for more food, but the parent has to distribute the limited food among all offspring. Is the child really hungry? Or does she selfishly want more food than her siblings? The child’s true state of hunger is termed private information. If the child could credibly indicate that her state of hunger, i.e., reveal her private information, then the parent would be willing to provide more food, resolving the POC. Costly signaling is one well-studied strategy to reveal private information when there are incentives to deceive (Spence 1973; Zahavi 1975). In brief, a costly signal is one that is too costly for cheaters to send.

Behavioral ecologists have long recognized that in many species with parental care of young, parents will adjust resource allocation in response to offspring begging displays, and offspring in turn adjust begging displays in response to resources received (Smiseth, Wright, and Kölliker 2008). Theorists have proposed that infant cries might represent a costly signal of need (Zahavi 1977; H. C. J. Godfray 1991; H. Godfray 1995). Empirical tests on several species of birds indicate costs in terms of immunocompetence, growth, and metabolism (Moreno-Rueda 2010; Moreno-Rueda and Redondo 2011; Soler et al. 2014; Redondo et al. 2016). The evidence suggests, however, that parents might differentially invest based on need or quality depending on environmental context, and the strategies may coexist (Kilner and Johnstone 1997; Budden and Wright 2001; Bowers et al. 2019). Furthermore, parents might choose to ignore signals, and in harsh unpredictable environments parents reduce brood size by neglecting low quality offspring (Caro et al. 2016). Parents are, thus, indifferent to costly signals if the parents and offspring no longer have a shared stake in offspring survival.

Bargaining, such as a labor strike, is another class of strategies that employs costly signals. In this case, employees and managers both profit by cooperating, but disagree over the division of the profits, each publicly demanding a greater share, but privately willing to settle for a smaller share. If the private division that each was willing to accept could be credibly signaled, the two parties could agree on a division and begin cooperating, to their mutual benefit. Labor strikes can be viewed as costly signals of these private valuations. During a strike, workers forego their salaries. For workers making good salaries, a strike is too costly. But for workers making poor salaries, a strike has low costs because foregoing a poor salary has little cost. Hence, a strike is a credible signal that salaries are too low (Kennan and Wilson 1993). Hagen (2003) and Kristen L. Syme, Garfield, and Hagen (2016) apply this logic to depression and suicidality. Within families or communities, individuals who cannot use aggression to obtain a fair division of benefits can, much like a labor strike, instead threaten to withhold their cooperation by becoming depressed or suicidal. These emotional states are proposed to be credible signals of need that, in situations involving severe conflicts, convince family or community members to improve conditions.

This theoretical model of bargaining corresponds closely to ethnographic reports of the Chuukese concept of amwunumwun – refusal to eat, social withdrawal, running away, and sometimes suicidality as responses to conflicts with powerful others. After collecting cases of suicide in Chuuk, Hezel observed, “The suicides are almost always triggered by some conflict, actual or anticipated, between the victim and a parent, an older relative (including an older sibling), or occasionally a spouse (F. X. Hezel 1987, 284).” According to Rubinstein and Hezel’s data, 70% of Chon Chuuk suicides were triggered by either a conflict with a parent (49%) or an older sibling (21%). Conflicts with parents also lead to other risky behaviors such as running away (Lowe 2003), which in Chuuk implies the threat of suicide, and can also incur costs on the young person if he or she chooses to hide in the bush for several days without food or shelter as opposed to staying with family (Fischer 1950). These results suggest that suicidality might be a conflict resolution strategy.

Risky and self-harming behaviors have long been a feature of Chon Chuuk male adolescence. Young men are expected to establish a reputation for bravery (pwara). Mac Marshall, who also carried out extensive fieldwork in Chuuk, theorized that acculturative processes and culture loss played a significant role in the development of the young men’s drinking culture (M. Marshall 1979). Before colonization, young men proved their fearlessness through warfare, but after colonization, heavy drinking and fighting among peers served as a means to that end. Self-scarification was also reportedly used by males to symbolize fortitude and endurance (M. Marshall 1979). Some even consider suffering and self-inflicted pain as proof of love. Several ethnographers documented Chon Chuuk males, and occasionally females, inflicting cuts or burns on themselves to commemorate sexual encounters (Caughey 1977; M. Marshall 1979; Gladwin and Sarason 1953). This notion of suffering as proof of love is still observed in the attempts of some lovesick youths to demonstrate their devotion to the object of their desire through self-mutilation (Lowe 2003). Overall, young Chon Chuuk women are less inclined to undertake risky behaviors or prove romantic devotion through self-harm (Gladwin and Sarason 1953).

There are other conflict resolution strategies that do not correspond so neatly to evolutionary models, and some of these exhibit patterning by gender. In Chuuk, consuming alcohol to the point of intoxication is a culturally patterned response to social conflicts that some young men use to loosen self-restraint and vent frustration at elder kin by cursing and shouting insults at them (F. X. Hezel 1987). Because a man is not considered in his right mind while drunk, cultural norms of respect are somewhat allayed. Similarly, spirit possession is a highly patterned behavior seen in young Chon Chuuk women in the context of family conflict, “functioning as a socially sanctioned release of culturally inhibited expression, perhaps even as a redirection of aggression (F. Hezel and Dobbin 1995).” The possessed woman can speak with authority, calling attention to family issues, such as the neglect of kin members, and offering solutions. Spirit possession episodes often end in family meetings where kin members come to a resolution (F. Hezel and Dobbin 1995).

Study Aims

The present study aims to investigate, from the child’s perspective, the entire spectrum of parent-offspring conflicts, responses to conflicts, and their outcomes. It endeavors to identify factors that distinguish minor from severe conflicts, and whether amwunumwun, i.e., withholding substantial cooperation, characterizes responses to more severe conflicts, and that might, in the extreme, lead to suicidal behavior.

The Study Population

All study participants were Chon Chuuk immigrants or children of immigrants located in the Portland, Oregon metropolitan area. Citizens of the Federated States of Micronesia and two other Micronesian nations (Palau and the Marshall Islands) can migrate to the United States under the Compact of Free Association (COFA), which was ratified in 1986. According to the terms of this agreement, the U.S. offers economic aid, defense, open migration to these nations’ citizens, and other benefits in exchange for exclusive military operating rights (United States Congress 1986; Micronesia Compact Amendment 2003). After the signing of the compact, a surge of migrants entered the U.S. seeking work and educational opportunities. In 1980, there were about 900 people from FSM residing in the U.S. and by the year 2000 there were 22,355 (F. X. Hezel and Levin 1996; Spencer 2012). Guam and Hawaii are primary destinations for Micronesian migrants–a substantial proportion of which are Chon Chuuk. However, the influx of Micronesians to U.S. islands has fueled resentment and prejudice among residents and politicians who have sought reimbursement from the U.S. government for the costs of education, health, and social services to COFA immigrants [Spencer (2012); a Briefing Report from the Hawaii Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights]. The agreement is set to expire in 2023 with the potential of renewal.

Most Micronesians living on the U.S. mainland are located around Portland, Oregon and Kansas City, Missouri (Francis Hezel and Levin 2012). Nearly half of Micronesian immigrants are Chon Chuuk, and the flow of migration is rising. Migration patterns trace kin networks, with males typically moving first to find employment and sending for spouses, children, parents, siblings, and other kin once settled. Often, parents in Chuuk send their teenage children to Guam, Hawaii, or the U.S. mainland for education. These children stay with relatives willing to act as parental guardians. In other instances, children born on the mainland are sent to Chuuk for schooling, often at one of the private religious schools, in order to learn the values of their home culture. Older adults travel back and forth between Chuuk and the U.S. to obtain better healthcare. Movement is thus not unidirectional, and there is a steady flow of people, cash, goods, and information across the Pacific via these transnational extended family networks (S. A. Smith 2014). Although job opportunities are more numerous in the U.S. compared to Chuuk, many islanders are limited to low-income wage work and face economic hardship often living below the poverty line. It is not unusual for an extended family of 6 people to co-habitat in a 2-bedroom apartment. However, living below the poverty line does not preclude sending remittances to family members back home.

The Chuukese Family

Clan membership is based on matrilineal descent, but property rights include both matrilineage membership and patrilineal descent (Ward Hunt Goodenough 1951). The extended family includes father’s kin and can extend to fourth and fifth cousins. The matrilineage (eterenges) corporately owns the land and its resources. Traditionally, the oldest living son of the oldest living woman in the lineage acted as the lineage chief (samol) whose responsibility it was to oversee the allocation of corporately owned property (Lowe 2002). Matrilocality was the prevailing residence pattern but was not a rule (Ward Hunt Goodenough and Skoggard 1999 culture summary). Kinship terminology presently adheres to the Hawaiian system in which all members of the senior generation are ‘father’ (‘sem’ or ‘papa’) and ‘mother’ (‘in’ or ‘mama’), all members of one’s own generation are either ‘sibling of the opposite sex’ (‘mwongei’) and ‘sibling of the same sex’ (pwipwi), and all members of the junior generation are ‘child’ (‘nei’). The Crow system is also known but was perhaps more common in the past (Ward Hunt Goodenough 1951; Ward H. Goodenough 1974). M. Marshall (1983) described ‘sibling sets’ as the building block of Chuuk society, and to be a sibling means metaphorically to share food of their mother’s land as they shared their mother’s breasts. Whereas the same-sex siblings (pwipwi) fulfill identical roles as allies and confidants, cross-sex siblings (mwongei) fulfill complementary gender-specific roles within the lineage (M. Marshall 1981). Hezel has contended that the monetization of the economy led to the nuclearization of the family, weakening ties between extended kin (Rubinstein 1992; F. X. Hezel 1989). Although it might be true that extended kin relations are comparatively weak today, the extended family remains a vital source of identity and emotional and material support.

Adoption is a widespread practice across Micronesia and usually occurs within extended kin groups (Betzig 1988; R. G. Goodenough 1970). Adoption (mwuti) serves a variety of social, political, and economic purposes in Chuuk. For instance, a family with many daughters but few sons might adopt a boy to assist with particular subsistence activities or vice versa (Rauchholz 2012). Couples lacking children or unmarried persons might request to adopt a child, usually from a sibling or other relative, in order to have someone to assist them in their household needs and to care for them in old age (Fischer 1963). Adoption affords childless women the status of motherhood (Fischer 1963), and an increase in the frequency of adoption during the mid-twentieth century was a consequence of the introduction of venereal disease from outsiders that led to high rates of sterility (R. G. Goodenough 1970). Adoption was also a means of establishing or maintaining inter-island kinship ties (Rauchholz 2012), but adopted children more often than not lived in close proximity to their biological parents and maintained close relations with both set of parents.

Sharing a child with a family member is still considered an expression of love/pity (ttong) ,and a person who refuses a request of adoption risks an accusation of stinginess (kiichingngaw) (Rauchholz 2012). M. Marshall (1976) observed that children were a valued resource and could be shared among kin just as land, food, labor, residence, and cash were shared. However, adoptions are not always uncontested. Adoptive parents might fear that the child will return to or favor their biological family and fail to reciprocate the care and investment that the adoptive parents provided. Parents might also mistrust requests of adoption from those who put their economic interests above the child’s (Rauchholz 2012). Adoptions are common today among Chon Chuuk as are guardianships. Some parents send their children to the U.S. to stay with extended kin who can act as their legal guardians, so that the child can receive a better education. Guardianships are distinct from adoption in that parents do not surrender their authority (nemeni) to the guardians (R. G. Goodenough 1970).


Using a semi-structured format, KLS conducted 58 retrospective interviews on the causes and outcomes of parent-child conflict during adolescence and young adulthood (from about 12 years old to either prior to marriage or before the age of 25) and the attendant behavioral strategies from the child’s perspective. Chon Chuuk participants were recruited from local churches and high schools in Vancouver, WA and Portland, OR. Snowball sampling was also used by asking participants if they had family members or friends who would be interested in participating. All but two participants resided full-time on the U.S. mainland at the time of interview. Participants had been living on the mainland for an average of 12 years by the time of the interview with range of 1 month to 38 years since migration. Sixteen participants moved to the mainland from Guam or Hawaii, and the remainder migrated from Chuuk. All interviews were conducted in English. The majority of interviews were one-on-one, but a handful of interviewees asked a family member to help translate.

Washington State University Institutional Review Board approved this study for human subjects, and all participants provided informed consent prior to the start of the interview. Due to the sensitive nature of the interview, all participants were 15 years of age or older. Interviews took place in homes, coffee shops, restaurants, and other locations convenient for the participants. Demographic information was collected prior to conducting the semi-structured portion of the interview. Participants were assured that we would not publish or present identifiable information.

Participants were asked to recall a time when they experienced conflict (osukosuk) either big or small (watte or ekis) with one or both parents. Questions included: When did this conflict occur? Who were you in conflict with (mother, father, or both)? Were other family members involved in the conflict? What was the conflict about? What emotions were you experiencing? Did you do anything to resolve the conflict in your favor? What emotions did your parent express? What did your parent do in response to your actions? The phrasing and timing of the questions varied depending on the responses of the participant. The semi-structured interview started over with each additional conflict. Semi-structured interviews lasted from 20-90 minutes. Interviews were conducted from August 2017 to June 2019.

KLS transcribed the interviews word-for-word as the interview was taking place and coded the data within 24-48 hours after completion of the interview. Transcripts were coded for behavioral strategies, conflict outcomes, among other variables. Operationalizations of the variables are listed in Table 1.

Table 1: Variable operationalization. All variables except Outcome favor were coded as 1: Evidence for; 0: No evidence.
Variables Operationalization Example of Evidence for Variable
Behavioral strategies
Aggression To display hostility or intimidation. Includes heated arguing, yelling, physical threats, and physical harm. “Sometimes I yell back when they’re yelling at me. I argue back.”
Withdrawal To disrupt or place a cooperative endeavor at risk by reducing investment. Includes withdrawal, avoidance, breaking agreements, running away, and moving away. Low cost withholding indicates that offspring used strategies such as temporary withdrawal, avoidance, or broke cooperative agreements as a form of withholding cooperation. High cost withholding indicates that the offspring ran away or moved away, placing the cooperative relationship at stake or putting themselves at risk of harm. “I just never talk to them and avoid them.”
Partner choice To replace or threaten to replace a cooperative partnership with one invidual or group with another individual or group. “I made the decision to live with [maternal grandmother]… I’m free to have girlfriend and have friends.”
Acquiescence To yield in a contest or conflict. “I was like alright. I’ll ask the teacher for help [to get my grades up].”
Deception To provide misleading information or to withhold information. “I would go out without telling them…Sometimes say going to one place but go to another place.”
Seek assistance To seek out aid from a third party for advice, comfort, refuge, or to request intervention. “[Maternal] uncles were netural that’s why I’d stay with them when I ran away.”
Apologize To admit fault. “I would make rice and hold her hands and say ‘I’m sorry’ for everything I told you.”
High cost strategy The child uses physical aggression against the parent, runs away, or moves away to express a desire for change in the relationship or to escape the relationship. “I just walked out when everyone went to sleep and then I just kept on walking….in the dark at night. It was cold and it was raining… It was 12:00 am. I stayed [with relative] for a [a period of time].”
Conflict variables
High severity Parent physically threatens child or child is exposed to violence at home; parent threatens to eliminate or drastically reduce investment; or parent causes child severe psychological distress or uncertainty. Including physical abuse, controlling behaviors, kicking out of home or family, and parental absence. “[My parent] said to take everything you have then go where you want to go. You want to be independent then go ahead, and I won’t consider you my [child].”
Outcome favor Parent or child: one party concedes or alters their expectations or behaviors in favor of the other party. “There was nothing I could do to change my father’s mind.”–Outcome parent (See supplemental material for examples of evidences for outcomes.)
Divided: both parties gain some benefits but lose others. “I’d get away with lying sometimes.”
Both: parties achieve a mutually beneficial outcome. “Then we woke up next morning [after he found out I was smoking] to do chores, and he ask me to do him favors… When he started asking me to do favors, I‚Äôll just enjoy doing whatever he asks…He said okay make sure you can afford your cigarettes.”

Analyses were conducted in R version 3.6.3 (2020-02-29).


The data set consisted of 58 interviewees reporting on 75 unique conflicts; 44 participants provided information on 1 conflict, 12 participants provided information on 2 conflicts, and 2 participants gave information on 3 or more conflicts. The sample included 27 males and 31 females. Participants ranged in age from 15 to 60. Age or mean age (if conflict lasted over years) at the time of conflict ranged from 10 to 25, and mean age at time of conflict for all participants was 16. Conflicts that were less than a year might have been as brief as one afternoon or have lasted over several months. Conflicts that persisted over many years were either intermittent (e.g., coming home late from time to time) or chronic (e.g., physical abuse). There were 16 conflicts rated as “high severity.” See Table 2.

Table 2: Summary statistics
Variable N Range Mean (SD) N Range Mean (SD)
Age at interview 27 15-60 36 (16) 31 15-60 29 (15)
Mean age at time of conflict 27 10-24 16 (3.8) 30 12-25 16 (3)
Total number of conflicts 27 1-2 1.1 (0.32) 31 1-4 1.5 (0.72)
Number of severe conflicts 27 0-1 0.24 (0.42) 31 0-1 0.19 (0.36)
Duration of conflict (years) 27 1-19 3.9 (5) 31 1-8 2.1 (1.8)

All the conflicts took place over a 51 year time span (1968-2019) and occurred in either the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) or the United States. There were 29 conflicts that occurred in Chuuk and 1 in a different FSM state. Older adults tended to report conflicts occurring in Chuuk since many of them were adolescents and young adults before the 1986 signing of the COFA agreement that allowed open migration. After 1990, the majority of the conflicts in the sample happened on U.S. land (31 on the U.S. mainland and 14 in either Hawaii or the U.S. Territory of Guam). See Figure 11.

The year and location of each conflict. Each dot is one conflict. Chuuk and US mainland: conflict occurred exclusively in one of those locations. US Pacific Island: conflict occurred at least in part in Guam or Hawaii. Micronesia: conflict occurred exclusively in Micronesia.

Figure 1: The year and location of each conflict. Each dot is one conflict. Chuuk and US mainland: conflict occurred exclusively in one of those locations. US Pacific Island: conflict occurred at least in part in Guam or Hawaii. Micronesia: conflict occurred exclusively in Micronesia.

Conflict causes

KLS coded each conflict for one or more causes, and then KLS and EHH aggregated these specific causes into more general categories. See Table 3.

Table 3: Causes of conflicts
General category Specific
activities with friends play, hang out, substance use, friendships, peer acceptance, texting_social media_gaming, going to friend’s house
education school choice, curriculum choice, skip school, education, academic performance, commute to school
family or home tension competing family alliances, home stress, sibling rivalry, adoption_guardianship, parental absence, take too long to get ready, physical health, parent deception, physical abuse, parents arguing, feel exploited
family responsibilities chores, childcare, care taking
fighting or aggression outside the home fighting, destroy_property, public argument
mateship mateship, arranged marriage, pregnancy, marriage
religion church, religion
resource allocation resource allocation(bed), resource allocation(goods), resource allocation(money), resource allocation(tv)
safety safety
social or cultural norms cultural norms, social role
time away from home or family staying away from home, moving out, out too late, out too long
work work

The frequencies of the general causes of conflicts are depicted in Figure 2.

The frequencies of general causes of conflicts. Most conflicts had multiple causes.

Figure 2: The frequencies of general causes of conflicts. Most conflicts had multiple causes.

Heatmap of Causes

To obtain an overview of which causes co-occurred, we generated a heatmap in which each conflict (columns) and the general causes involved (rows) were both clustered using hierarchical cluster analysis. See Figure 3. Conflicts often had multiple causes. For example, family responsibilities involved assisting in tasks that benefit family members, such as chores, child care, and care-taking of sick or elderly. Family or home tension involved conflicts at home or within the family that are persistent over time and create a stressful environment including: chronic arguing, competing family alliances, physical abuse, and labor exploitation. The most common source of conflict was activities with friends. One cluster consists of activities with friends, education, family responsibilities, and family or home tension, indicating that these causes tended to co-occur. Another cluster consists of social or cultural norms and mateships that occasionally co-occurred.

The red annotations in the top row indicate a high severity conflict, and clustered along the left side in association with family or home tension.