Does Separation Anxiety Impair Children’s Emotional Recognition?

Children with separation anxiety (SAD) and other anxiety problems can have difficulty in certain situations because of emotional appraisal and recognition impairments. But to what extent do these impairments exist and do they disappear as children mature? To answer this question and others related to specific types of anxiety, Trevor Changgun Lee of the Institute of Medical Science at the University of Toronto recently led a study involving 63 children with various anxiety issues between the ages of 6 and 11. The children completed a task that required they identify various complex and simple emotions of animated characters and their results were compared to the results of 59 children without anxiety.

The results revealed that different forms of anxiety affected emotional recognition in different ways. Specifically, SAD resulted in an overall impairment in emotional recognition that was not evident in the other forms of anxiety. Further, children with generalized anxiety (GAD) did have deficits in emotional recognition compared to those without anxiety, but these were only statistically significant at young ages. As the children matured the emotional appraisal and recognition differences between those with and without GAD disappeared.

The findings presented here are unique in that they shed light on how children of varying ages and with varying subtypes of anxiety process emotions. Understanding these impairments and differences can help clinicians deliver more targeted treatment approaches. Also, Lee’s finding that SAD has a more pronounced effect on emotional recognition than other forms of anxiety deserves further investigation, especially in young children.

In sum, despite some differences in emotional recognition based on age and type, the results of this study suggest that general anxiety does not appear to directly impair emotional processing and appraisal in all children children. Lee reiterated that when experts consider subtypes and age, “children with SAD and young children with GAD appear to have difficulty, compared with children without anxiety disorder(s).”

Lee, Trevor Changgun,B.Sc, M.Sc, et al. “Effects of Age and Subtype on Emotional Recognition in Children with Anxiety Disorders: Implications for Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy.” Canadian Journal of Psychiatry 58.5 (2013): 283-90.ProQuest. Web. 26 July 2013.

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  • Breezy


    September 6th, 2013 at 3:44 AM

    Anxiety makes it difficult for adults to function normally so I can only imagine how difficult this must make the life of a child.

  • Randall


    September 7th, 2013 at 4:46 AM

    I hope that for many children, they are fortnate enough to have families who will help them address this early in life, so that as adults they are not as severely impacted by this as they would be had it not been treated early.

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