Abused kids lose emotional bearings

Preschoolers often find it difficult to recognize what another person is feeling if they have experienced severe mistreatment at home. Two forms of such cruelty to children, physical neglect and physical abuse, undermine emotional development in different ways, a new study indicates.

Neglected kids have trouble distinguishing among facial expressions of happiness, sadness, anger, disgust, fear, and emotional neutrality, say psychologist Seth D. Pollak of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and his colleagues. Physical neglect involves acts of omission, such as leaving children unsupervised in potentially dangerous situations and denying them food and medical care. These children may grow up in families that offer few opportunities for learning how to convey feelings, the team proposes in the September Developmental Psychology.

In contrast, physical abuse occurs when a caregiver inflicts severe, disfiguring, or life-threatening injuries on a child. Physically abused preschoolers readily recognize angry faces but also tend to see anger in neutral faces, Pollak’s group reports. These children often have trouble recognizing sad and disgusted faces but accurately select happy ones, the researchers say.

They theorize that physically abused children learn to keep an eye out for glimmers of angry expressions that signal palpable threats at home. As a result, these kids often miss facial cues to other negative emotions.

Pollak and his coworkers studied 31 physically neglected children and 30 physically abused ones, as well as 26 kids with no documented instances of abuse or neglect. Participants ranged in age from 3 to 5. Both sets of mistreated kids attended a preschool for children who had suffered documented abuse or neglect at home.

Each child tried to match facial expressions in photographs to brief descriptions of emotional situations, such as dreaming about a monster or having a birthday party with lots of games and presents. They also rated the similarity of pairs of facial expressions.

In a particularly disturbing finding, neglected children often equated happy and sad faces. This suggests “that even relatively simple aspects of emotional recognition are compromised through neglectful parenting,” the scientists hold.

Kids who had not been mistreated accurately matched and identified happy, sad, angry, disgusted, fearful, and neutral faces.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.