Recognition of facial emotions among maltreated children with high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder

Department of Psychology, University of California, 1285 Franz Hall, Box 951563, Los Angeles, CA 90095, USA.
Child Abuse & Neglect (Impact Factor: 2.47). 02/2008; 32(1):139-53. DOI: 10.1016/j.chiabu.2007.09.006
Source: PubMed


The purpose of this study is to examine processing of facial emotions in a sample of maltreated children showing high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Maltreatment during childhood has been associated independently with both atypical processing of emotion and the development of PTSD. However, research has provided little evidence indicating how high rates of PTSD might relate to maltreated children's processing of emotions.
Participants' reaction time and labeling of emotions were measured using a morphed facial emotion identification task. Participants included a diverse sample of maltreated children with and without PTSD and controls ranging in age from 8 to 15 years. Maltreated children had been removed from their homes and placed in state custody following experiences of maltreatment. Diagnoses of PTSD and other disorders were determined through combination of parent, child, and teacher reports.
Maltreated children displayed faster reaction times than controls when labeling emotional facial expressions, and this result was most pronounced for fearful faces. Relative to children who were not maltreated, maltreated children both with and without PTSD showed enhanced response times when identifying fearful faces. There was no group difference in labeling of emotions when identifying different facial emotions.
Maltreated children show heightened ability to identify fearful faces, evidenced by faster reaction times relative to controls. This association between maltreatment and atypical processing of emotion is independent of PTSD diagnosis.

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