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Study Shows Abused Children React Differently to Anger, Fear - 2002-06-21

The emotional scars from child abuse can last a lifetime. Evidence of this comes from a study suggesting that abused children learn early in life to recognize signs of anger and keep that skill into adulthood.

Fear is a protective emotion, as University of Wisconsin psychologist Seth Pollak shows in his study comparing a group of nine year olds who had been abused to those who had not. The abused group was under psychiatric and welfare supervision, having suffered broken bones, burns, choking and other mistreatment. Mr. Pollak and his colleagues set out to learn whether the two groups of children reacted differently to emotions of people around them.

"We were curious about how early abuse in childhood affected children's ability to learn to recognize and understand other people's facial expressions of emotion," Mr. Pollak said. "We were interested in this because we felt that by understanding how children who had been abused early in life went about decoding other people's facial expressions might give us a better understanding of why abuse early in life can be associated with many psychological problems later in life."

Mr. Pollak's team created an engaging computer game in which children saw photographs of male and female faces. The researchers artificially controlled the faces to display either a single emotion or a blend of two. A face could be completely happy, for example, or mostly happy but partly fearful, too. The researchers then asked the children to decide what emotion the person on the screen was experiencing.

The responses of the little participants surprised the Wisconsin researchers, as they report in the Proceedings of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. They found that abused and unabused children recognized happiness, fear, and sadness equally well. What differed sharply were their reactions to anger.

"Physically abused children were much more likely to perceive a face as representing anger than were non-abused children," Mr. Pollack said. "Anger is an emotion that is probably very salient for these children and probably these children learned that anger cues in the environment are very important things they need to pay attention to."

Mr. Pollak thinks that sensitivity to anger alerts abused children to the intentions of abusive family members and helps them prepare for outbursts, but outside the abusive environment, such extreme sensitivity to anger may do more harm than good. "Children might be spending a lot of their attention looking for and interpreting threatening cues in the environment which might lead them to misperceive what is happening in their social world," he said. "They might miss the fact that somebody is joking with them. So we see this as perhaps a link between the early experiences children have had and a later development of social and interpersonal problems."

University of Minnesota child development expert Megan Gunnar agrees. She adds that the Wisconsin study shows the need to treat such hypersensitivity to help abused children lead more normal lives. "It may be that these early experiences are increasing the likelihood that children will perceive others as threatening them, as being angry at them, and potentially then respond in kind, creating all sorts of problematic interactions," she said. "So this gives us a possible mechanism, and once you have a mechanism, you can begin to think about how to intervene and maybe alter some of that."

The University of Wisconsin's Seth Pollak and other social scientists hope that the new study will help abused children put their emotional trauma behind them.