Anxious children find reading faces hard
The Sector > Research > Children with anxiety find reading emotional cues difficult, study finds

Children with anxiety find reading emotional cues difficult, study finds

by Freya Lucas

June 14, 2023

Children who live with specific psychiatric symptoms, such as anxiety, may struggle to understand the emotions of those around them, and that lack of understanding can make it hard for them to respond appropriately in social situations, a new study has shown.


The researchers, from the Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis, shows that the way in which children’s brains process emotional cues typically is mostly set by the time they are school age, and that by adolescence, such brain activity becomes similar to the way the brains of their peers process such cues.


To reach their findings, the researchers studied the brain scans of hundreds of children aged between five and fifteen years, leaving them to conclude that the best time to intervene to address issues children may have in reading others’ emotional cues is early, even before they start school.


“It appears that activation patterns in the brain for processing naturalistic emotional cues are pretty well set by the time a child reaches school age,” said first author Dr M. Catalina (Cat) Camacho. 


“While the patterns become more refined in adolescence, they don’t change substantially. What that means is that when the response to others’ emotions is unusual as it can be in anxiety, autism or depression we really need to intervene during early childhood to better support the child’s social and emotional development.”


Dr Camacho and her colleagues analysed brain scan data from 823 kids who were shown two videos while in a magnetic resonance imaging scanner. 


One was a Pixar short entitled The Present, in which a young boy who is missing part of one of his legs is given the gift of a puppy who also is missing part of a leg. 


The other video was a 10-minute scene from the animated film Despicable Me, in which a supervillain begins a family by adopting three orphan girls, and he must choose whether he is more committed to being a villain or to raising his daughters.


“We were surprised by the findings because the brain activity for each emotion was so distinct among these children,” Dr Camacho said. “Overall, the activation patterns seem to be very well set for each emotion category, which tells me we need to study even younger kids to determine when these brain responses begin to take shape.”


“Adults and older children know that when they see a picture of a sad face, they’re meant to interpret that the person is sad, but if you show the same picture to a three-year-old, they often won’t recognise the emotion because there’s no context showing why the person is making a sad expression,” Dr Camacho explained. “With movies, we can bridge that gap because movies present cues with much-needed context about the emotions.”


The study was published on 8 June in the journal Nature Neuroscience. Access it here.

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