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Home > Research Articles > Abused Kids Tend to See Anger in Adult's Face

Reuters Health

Monday, June 17, 2002

Abused Kids Tend to See Anger in Adult's Face By Keith Mulvihill NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Children who have grown up in an abusive home are more likely than other youngsters to perceive anger in the faces of adults with ambiguous expressions, according to new research. The findings, the researchers say, may eventually be used to help children overcome the mental trauma that they sustained from the abuse. In spite of the fact that millions of children are abused in the US each year, little research has been done to evaluate how child abuse affects brain functioning, explained psychologist Dr. Seth D. Pollak of the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Using "morphed" images of facial expression, Pollak and his colleague Doris J. Kistler showed 23 children with a history of physical abuse four different photographs with faces that gradually changed from expressions of happiness to fearfulness or sadness or from expressions of anger into fearfulness and sadness. The children were then asked to identify the emotion that the face was depicting at different points along the conversion. Their responses were then compared with the responses of 17 children with no history of abuse. The findings were published online Monday in the Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences for June 25. "Children who had been abused saw most of the faces the same way as the other kids," Pollak told Reuters Health. However, when expressions depicting anger were morphed into expressions of sadness or fearfulness, the abused children were more likely to identify a facial expression as angry even when the face was blended more with expressions of fear or sadness. In other words, while non-abused kids were more likely to say they couldn't identify the emotion of the more equally blended facial expressions, the abused kids were more apt to say the expression depicted anger, explained Pollak. The abused children showed a tendency to be "especially sensitive to detecting any anger in a face," said Pollak. "This would indicate that these kids have a broader category for anger" compared with the non-abused children. Pollack pointed out that the experiment possibly reveals how the brains of abused children "hard-wire" information about emotional cues during their early years compared with kids growing up in non-abusive households. While adapting to a stressful, threatening, and hostile home environment by over-identifying anger can be interpreted as a good thing--because it may help one to better interpret and avoid physical threats--the trait could later become a detriment, Pollak noted. For instance, abused kids appear to have more interpersonal problems later in life and this may be due to their over-interpretation of threatening emotional cues, Pollak explained. The researchers plan to investigate the subject further, Pollak added. SOURCE: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 2002;99:9072-