Children from high conflict homes process emotion differently

We know that the price of a divorce can be high for children, but staying together with many conflicts has also consequences. Children of parents who are frequently in conflict process emotional interactions differently. A new study examined this by measuring research subjects’ brain activity during a psychological test. Do note that the group of children involved is rather small (23), but the result is in line with previous research. The researchers think children living in high conflict homes  may face social challenges later in life compared with children from low conflict homes

From the press release:

The research study measured brain activity in children who were shown a mix of photos of couples in angry poses, happy poses and neutral poses. Based on questionnaires filled out by their mothers, the children were grouped in either a high conflict or a low conflict group.

When children in the high conflict group were asked to pick out the angry couples in the battery of photos, their brains registered a much higher amplitude on an EEG test of an electrical activity called P-3 in response to the angry photos, compared with children in the low conflict group. P-3 is associated with the brain’s ability to discriminate among stimuli and to focus on and give meaning to one.

The study’s lead author, Alice Schermerhorn, assistant professor of Psychological Science at the University of Vermont, said that, for the children from high conflict homes, looking for the photos of angry couples could be analogous to situations at home where parents have had an argument that hasn’t been resolved.

“They’re being watchful in the home in the same way that they’re watching for angry faces in the research setting,” she said.

The P-3 signal in children from high conflict homes was also much higher when they were asked to identify angry couples but viewed the happy faces, compared with children from low conflict homes.

The pattern suggests children from high conflict homes, by training their brains to be vigilant, process signs of interpersonal emotion, either anger or happiness, differently than children from low conflict homes, Schermerhorn said.

For some, that extra vigilance could lead to problems in social relationships later in life, Schermerhorn hypothesized, although more research is needed to test that theory.

“I would predict some association with their functioning in other kinds of situations,” she said.

Schermerhorn and her colleagues currently have research underway that could determine if a correlation exists between higher P-3 amplitudes in a similar research study and the behaviors of their research subjects.

Abstract of the study:

This study builds on the literature on child exposure to marital conflict by testing whether mother-reported marital conflict exposure predicts a child’s P3 event-related potential (ERP) components generated in response to viewing quasi–marital conflict photos. We collected ERP data from 23 children (9–11 years of age) while presenting photos of actors pretending to be a couple depicting interpersonal anger, happiness, and neutrality. To elicit the P3 ERP, stimuli were presented using an oddball paradigm, with angry and happy photos presented on 20% of trials each and neutral photos presented on the remaining 60% of trials. Angry photos were the target in 1 block, and happy photos were the target in the other block. In the angry block, children from high-conflict homes had shorter reaction times (RTs) on happy trials than on neutral trials, and children from low-conflict homes had shorter RTs on angry trials than on happy trials. Also within the angry block, children generated larger P3s on angry trials than on happy trials, regardless of exposure to conflict. Further, children from high-conflict homes generated larger P3s on angry trials and on happy trials compared with neutral trials, but children from low-conflict homes did not. Results are discussed in terms of implications for children’s processing of displays of interpersonal emotion.

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