Anxious Children Confuse 'Sad and Mad'
Confusing an angry face with a sad one is a common and often socially costly mistake for children who are affected by high social anxiety, says a recent study published in the Journal of Genetic Psychology.
Researchers are optimistic that reading nonverbal communication is a skill that can be taught. If studies can hone in on patterns of mistakes in nonverbal communication, they may eventually be able to offer help to people who suffer from social anxiety.
Tests for the study were developed by psychologist and clinical researcher Steve Nowicki, who said that misinterpreting facial expressions leads to “social trouble” and, “It can make life very difficult, because other people’s faces are like a prism through which we look at the world.”
Children who are already anxious about making friends run into trouble when they don't learn to recognize anger, making social interactions more difficult. Even though these children want very much to become socially involved with others, their inability to recognize anger leads to more rejection, without them understanding why.
It is still not understood if the inability to correctly read facial expressions is a primary cause of social anxiety or just one contributing factor.
Dr. Nowicki has been working with Emory psychologist Marshall Duke for over two decades on understanding nonverbal communication and child development. They've discovered that, among children with high functioning autism and other behavioral disorders, nonverbal communication skills can be improved upon through direct teaching.
Although it seems like everybody should be able to recognize common emotions in facial expressions, Nowicki's experiences in practice showed otherwise. “My heart went out to these kids,” he says. “I had the idea that nonverbal communication could be taught. It’s a skill, not something mysterious.”
The two doctors created the term “dyssemia,” defined as the inability to process signs. They also developed the Diagnostic Analysis of Nonverbal Accuracy (DANVA) to evaluate cues like tone and voice cadence.
Amy Walker, a former undergraduate Emory student now at Yeshiva University, co-authored the study.
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