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Does your child know you’re sad? Facial expression recognition in kids of depressed mothers

Posted May 29 2010 6:48am

BRIEFS from APS:

As I mentioned a couple of days ago, during the next few days I’ll be summarizing research presented at the Annual Convention of the Association for Psychological Science. I’ll start today with a non-so-brief report of a study I know very well, mostly because it’s a study I presented yesterday morning.

For the last few years, I’ve been interested in exploring why children of depressed parents ( those at ‘familial-risk’) are more likely than their peers to become depressed. In fact, up to 50% of these children will develop depression by the end of their teen years. If we understand why these kids develop depression, we could create preventive intervention for these children. In our research, we have focused our efforts on examining factors that keep these children from regulating their emotions effectively. For example, we are interested in whether kids at familial risk for depression have biases in their attention and perception  of emotions, which may lead to lower levels of happiness (positive affect) and higher levels of sadness.

In a recent study we just completed, we examined children’s ability to recognize subtle traces of sadness in adult facial expressions. We presented children at familial risk for depression and their low-risk peers (kids whose parents never experience depression) with pictures that varied in emotional intensity from completely neutral (no emotion at all) to 100% emotion (e.g., Sadness). So a child may see a picture that was 40% sad, 10% sad, or 70% sad, etc. After each picture the child was asked to state whether the person on the picture was feeling sad or nothing at all. We wanted to know if children at familial risk for depression could identify sadness at lower levels of intensity (e.g., 20% sadness) than their low risk peers.

What did we find?

  • As a group, there were no differences in the ability to identify sadness at different levels of emotional intensity between the at-risk and the low risk children
  • However, we found a significant interaction with gender. Specifically, at risk boys (but not girls) were significantly more sensitive to subtle traces of sad cues than their low risk peers. That is, at risk boys were able to recognize sadness in ambiguous faces at much lover levels of sadness intensity than their peers!

What does this mean? We think that oversensitivity to sad expressions may be one of the factors that eventually contribute to these kids getting depressed. Why? Think from the perspective of a child who is an ‘expert at recognizing sadness’…. How would your social world look like? What would happen if during your day-to-day interactions with your parents, teachers, and friends, you could identify very subtle traces of sadness? You would be exposed to significantly more sadness than your peers who are not as good at seeing the sadness in others. What consequences could this bring? One possibility, which is supported by other experiments that we have conducted, is that this over sensitivity to sadness may interact with another feature of these kids brains: they have difficulty attending AWAY from sad stimuli. So now imagine that you are a kid who is not only an expert on indentifying subtle traces of sadness in others but who also have difficulty attending to other things once you see something sad. This could have a major impact on your day to day experience, likely leading to more feelings of sadness and less feelings of happiness: a recipe for the development of depression.

A few final thoughts… some of you may be asking, are these kids simply oversensitive to all emotions? Actually the answer is no. We did not find the same effect for angry faces and others have found the opposite effect for happy faces. That is, there is some evidence that these kids are very good at identifying sad faces but very bad at seeing subtle traces of happiness.

But there is a major question we have not answered… why did we find an effect for at risk boys and not with at risk girls? The honest answer is that we don’t know, but there are some hypotheses we are considering and maybe by next year we could complete the picture.

The reference:

Lopez-Duran, Kuhlman, George, Kovacs (2010). Facial Expression Recognition in Children at Familial Risk for Depression: Evidence for Oversensitivity to Sadness. Presented at the Annual Convention of the Association for Psychological Science. Boston, MA. May, 2010.

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