New Study Examines Threat Bias in Distressed and Fearful Children

Threat bias is common among people with anxiety issues. Individuals with generalized anxiety, social anxiety, and phobias often have a tendency to focus their attention on a threatening cue rather than shift their attention away from such a threat. Children with anxiety also appear to demonstrate the same type of behavior. However, it is unclear whether children with subclinical symptoms of fear or distress demonstrate the same type of attentional bias. If they do, measures could be taken to teach children how to shift their attention early on so that they could potentially avoid developing more severe symptoms or clinical levels of internalizing problems, such as anxiety.

In an attempt to get a clear picture of the attentional biases present in children with varying degrees of internalizing symptoms, Giovanni A. Salum of the National Institute of Developmental Psychiatry for Children and Adolescents in Brazil recently led the largest study ever conducted on pediatric attention bias. For his study, Salum evaluated 1,774 children ranging in age from 6 to 12. He assessed their levels of internalizing behaviors and categorized them as having symptoms of distress, fear, or behavioral problems. After exposing all the children to happy, neutral, and threatening facial stimuli, he found that the children with distressful internalizing issues had an attentional bias towards the threatening cues. “In contrast,” said Salum, “In children with fear-related psychiatric disorders, higher symptom severity predicted greater attention bias away from threat.” There was no association between attention bias and threat cues in the children with behavioral issues.

Salum believes his findings are significant, as they show that attentional bias is unique to different types of internalizing and is not associated with symptom severity alone. Additionally, this research suggests that methods to teach attentional shifting that are widely used in adult clients with anxiety issues could also be delivered to younger individuals at risk for threat bias. By teaching children how to change their perception and appraisal of threat early on, they may be able to protect themselves from increasing symptom severity and possible clinical levels of distress.

Salum, G. A., et al. (2013). Threat bias in attention orienting: Evidence of specificity in a large community-based study. Psychological Medicine 43.4 (2013): 733-45. ProQuest. Web.

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  • benjamin


    April 22nd, 2013 at 9:58 PM

    it’s one thing to have symptoms and quite another how you react and adapt to them.while I’ve seen and known people who distress themselves easily it included both – those who internalize and suffer and those who let it out.not hard to imagine which group suffers and hurts themselves more.they need to be taught coping methods and what better time than in childhood?

  • chelsea t

    chelsea t

    April 23rd, 2013 at 3:52 AM

    You would assume that if someone is anxious then they would try to get away from the stressors, and not focus quite as much on them.

  • Logan


    April 23rd, 2013 at 11:20 AM

    If there is a way to provide children with the tools to protect themselves from doing this into their adult lives then that would be a remarkable improvement for many.

    It makes me sad to think of the lives that needlessly have to suffer because they are not provided with the right resources when they are younger to deal with these sorts of things. Most of us are just like them in that we do things out of habit and repitition. But if these are broken at an earlier age, then they have a chance to not live in such fear and worry and to experience life the way that it is meant to be lived.

  • stella


    April 24th, 2013 at 12:00 AM

    its like an addiction isn’t it? cant get your attention away from the source of threat. would addiction related techniques work here too?!

  • Sadie R

    Sadie R

    April 26th, 2013 at 10:59 AM

    What in the world is “threat bias”? Please explain in a simplified manner.

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