acta ethologica

, Volume 11, Issue 1, pp 16–25 | Cite as

Beyond flight or fight: developmental changes in young children’s coping with peer conflict

Original Paper


This research provides a summary of an observational study of children’s spontaneous reactions to peer-initiated conflict. Drawing from sociolinguistics analyses of family disputes, we sought to isolate children’s styles of coping with peer provocations. More than 900 episodes of spontaneous conflict were observed in eight preschool groups of children from 3 to 5 years of age (78 girls and 72 boys). Reactions to physical attacks, object struggles, as well as verbal and disruptive conflict were coded in five categories: counter-attack, flight, emotional display, negotiate, and seek help. Theoretically driven cluster analyses of reactions to provocation revealed four distinct modes of coping: fight, flight, standoff, and mediate. Differences in coping were systematically related to observer evaluations of individual differences in psychosocial adjustment and to teacher reports on children’s conflict management. Findings support a developmental model with both quantitative and qualitative changes in reactions to peer conflict.


Flight/Fight Coping styles Reactions to aggression Early peer conflict 



This work was supported by a grant from the University of Roma “La Sapienza” (C26A-035731) to the first author and by a Visiting professorship from the same university to the second author. We wish to thank the students from the University of Roma “La Sapienza” who helped with data collection and coding. The authors express their special thanks to Bianca Pistorio who supervised these activities with passion and competence. We are grateful to the children, teachers, and families who participated in this research. In addition, we thank the colleagues (especially Nancy Eisenberg, Anna Silvia Bombi, Gian Vittorio Caprara, and Teresa Blicharski) for valuable comments on an earlier version of this article.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag and ISPA 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of Rome, “La Sapienza”RomeItaly
  2. 2.University of Bordeaux 2, “Victor Segalen”BordeauxFrance

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