Best Practices

Impaired emotion recognition in maltreated children: Implications for empathic concern

A reduced ability to recognize and understand negative emotions in others may underlie deficits in compassion and empathic concern.

By Kelli Dickerson and Jodi A. Quas, PhD

In this era of heightened public awareness about violence in society, psychological science has turned increasing attention not only toward understanding factors that contribute to that violence, but also toward understanding how compassion, empathy, and altruism can be promoted, particularly in those populations at greatest risk for violent behavior.

Maltreated children constitute one such population. They routinely exhibit a range of aggressive behaviors; they are at increased risk for violence, delinquency and crime; and they tend to be revictimized at particularly high rates. They also, unfortunately, can be less helpful, sensitive and concerned about others, and may react with hostility toward others' distress. These diminished prosocial tendencies, not surprisingly, can lead to negative responses from others, perpetuating maltreated children's hostile behaviors and contributing to the cycle of maladaptive response proclivities that have come to define many of these children's lives.

We would like to highlight here a potential mechanism that may contribute to maltreated children's aggressive behavior and underlie their apparent deficits in compassion and empathic concern. This mechanism, though theoretically plausible, has not yet been adequately established. Our hope is to increase awareness of its potential influence and, in doing so, increase scientific and practical attention toward this important topic in maltreated populations. Specifically, when maltreated children fail to react empathically or engage in prosocial behavior, it is often assumed that they do not feel empathy or they simply do not care about others' distress. An alternative explanation, however, is that maltreated children do not feel empathy because they do not recognize the negative emotions in others that give rise to empathic concern. That is, empathy is defined as the tendency to share or respond to others' emotions or feelings (Feschbach, 1975; Strayer, 1987). An implicit assumption in this definition is that individuals actually recognize others' emotions. Any impairments in this ability would lead to a reduction in empathic behavior — not because individuals cannot feel empathy, but instead because individuals fail to recognize the emotions that should actually motivate empathy in the first place (Feshbach, 1983). Several lines of research suggest that these impairments exist in maltreated children and may well be affecting their empathic tendencies.

For one, fairly consistent evidence indicates that exposure to compromised home environments, such as those involving maltreatment or other forms of severe deprivation, influences children's understanding of emotions, leading to deficits in recognition of some emotions and concurrently to biases toward seeing others (Leist & Dadds, 2009; Pollak & Kistler, 2002; Wismer Fries & Pollak, 2004). For example, in several studies, Pollak and colleagues have shown that compared to nonmaltreated children, neglected children have difficulty discriminating among emotional expressions, and physically abused children are poorer at recognizing sadness (e.g., Pollak et al., 2000). Other research has revealed that children who live in high-conflict families or who have experienced maltreatment are especially quick and accurate at recognizing anger, and in fact tend to perceive anger even in ambiguous situations. This “anger bias,” though perhaps adaptive in an unpredictable and potentially violent environment, gradually extends well beyond that environment, leading to heightened perceptions of anger across a range of contexts, whether warranted or not (Dodge, Bates, & Pettit, 1990; Shackman et al., 2007; Pollak, 2008).

Finally, evidence suggests that recognizing emotions in others, particularly sadness, may be related to children' empathic concern for those others. In a recent study, for example, we investigated emotion recognition and empathy in children and adolescents growing up in Swaziland, a small impoverished country in southern Africa (Quas, Dickerson, Matthews, & Harron, under review). Many of the children had experienced persistent adversity due to parental loss, maltreatment or chronic deprivation. We were interested in whether this persistent adversity exposure was associated with reduced empathic concern for others, and if so, whether the children's ability to recognize emotions mediated the association. Stated another way, we investigated whether adversity exposure predicted impairments in emotion understanding, and whether these impairments in turn predicted a reduction in empathic concern.

We showed the children images varying in emotional content. We then asked them how the characters in the images felt, and how they felt for the characters. As would be expected, children exposed to greater adversity indeed perceived less sadness and more anger in the characters, both when the images depicted negative scenes and when the images were ambiguous. Perceiving less sadness, in turn, predicted less empathic concern. Our findings are consistent with the view that at least one mechanism through which adversity exposure reduces empathic concern is via difficulties in emotion recognition, particularly sadness.

We suspect that similar patterns of associations would emerge in maltreated children (the children in Swaziland had experienced maltreatment as well as other chronic stressors), and we are now testing this possibility in a sample of children here in the United States who are living in a residential facility following removal from home due to substantiated abuse or neglect.

In closing, recognizing sadness in others and experiencing sadness in response does not always lead to empathic concern, compassion or altruistic tendencies. However, recognizing and understanding sadness in others is likely one important precursor. Additional research, particularly that which examines multiple forms of maltreatment and violence exposure, emotion recognition in a range of contexts, and different facets of not only empathic concern but also altruistic responding and prosocial behaviors, is needed to understand, in a more complex manner, the intricate relations among adversity, emotion recognition and empathy-related behaviors. Not only will this research provide much-needed insight into mechanisms underlying empathy and altruism in maltreated children, but it may also provide concrete directions for intervention research with these populations to promote empathy, prosocial behaviors and possibly more positive relationship functioning.


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