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Normative patterns, individual styles, and developmental changes in coping with background anger (anger between others) were examined in preschoolers. Live models expressed verbalized anger toward each other while pairs of same-sex friends played in an adjacent room. 85 4- and 5-year-olds participated, playing took place in the presence of mothers, and a 7-episode sequence of background conditions (no emotion, positive, no emotion, anger, no emotion, positive, no emotion) described the experimental situation. Children were also interviewed concerning their feelings during others' anger. Preschoolers evidenced heightened arousal, that is, greater distress, social sharing, preoccupation, and positive affect, concurrent with exposure to background anger. Increased verbal aggressiveness in play occurred in the period following exposure. Coping styles initially identified from behavioral emotional responses to the adults' quarrel were further delineated by contrasts on other aspects of functioning. Concerned emotional responders (46%) showed negative emotions concurrent with exposure, and later reported that they had felt sad during the fight and wanted to intervene. Unresponsive children (15%) showed no evidence of emotion, but later reported that they were angry. Ambivalent responders (35%) showed high emotional arousal during exposure, typified by both positive and negative emotions. Later they reported feeling happy but disregulated and were most likely to become physically and verbally aggressive in play with a friend. Analyses on a subsample (N = 43) also seen as toddlers showed that responses to background anger changed markedly, but precursors of preschoolers' coping styles were evident in toddlers' behavioral responses.
Child Development © 1987 Society for Research in Child Development