By Janice Wood
Children who have been abused or exposed to other types of trauma typically experience more intense emotions than their peers.
But a new study has found that, with a little help, those children can learn to regulate their emotions, which could help them cope with difficult situations, as well as benefit more from therapy.
A University of Washington-led team of researchers studied what happens in the brains of maltreated adolescents when they viewed emotional images, and then tried to control their responses to them. The researchers found that with a little guidance, these children have a surprising ability to regulate their emotions.
“They were just as able to modulate their emotional responses when they were taught strategies for doing so,” said Kate McLaughlin, an assistant professor of psychology and the study’s lead author. “That’s very encouraging.”
Difficulties with regulating emotions are linked to the onset of mental disorders among abused children, according to the researchers.
In their study, published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, researchers recruited 42 boys and girls between the ages of 13 and 19. Half of them had been physically and/or sexually abused.
Using magnetic resonance imaging, the researchers tracked the teens’ brain activity as they were shown a series of photographs.
The teens were first shown neutral, positive, and negative images and were told to let their emotions unfold naturally. The neutral images featured outdoor scenes or objects, such as a coffee cup or a pair of glasses, while the positive and negative images depicted scenarios showing people with different facial expressions — a smiling family engaged in a fun activity, for example, or two people arguing.
The exercise was intended to model real-world emotional situations, McLaughlin said.
“How much do you react when something emotional happens? Some people have really strong emotional reactions. Some people have much more muted responses,” said McLaughlin, director of the University of Washington’s Stress & Development Laboratory.
“The question is, do we see differences in the brain in terms of how it responds to emotional information in kids who have been maltreated?”
The answer is yes, the researchers concluded.
The positive images generated little difference in brain activity between the two groups. But when looking at negative images, the maltreated teens had more activity in brain regions involved in identifying potential threats — including the amygdala, which plays a key role in processing emotions and learning about environmental threats.
That makes sense, since in a chronically dangerous environment the brain is on heightened alert, constantly on the lookout for potential threats, McLaughlin said.
In a second exercise, the teens were shown more photos and told to try to increase their emotional responses to the positive images and scale them back when viewing the negative images, using techniques they were taught beforehand.
The teens were shown how to use cognitive reappraisal, a strategy that involves thinking about a situation differently to alter the emotional response to it, the researchers explained.
The teens thought about the negative images in ways that made them psychologically more distant. For example, they were told to think that the people in the photos were strangers or that the scene was not really happening.
For the positive cues, they thought about the images in a way that made them more realistic, such as imagining that they were part of the happy scene or that it involved people they knew.
Again, the two groups were similar in their brain responses to the positive images. But the negative photos caused the maltreated teens’ brains to go into overdrive, drawing more heavily on regions in the prefrontal cortex to tamp down their feelings, according to the study’s findings.
The prefrontal cortex is involved in higher-order cognition and integrates information from other areas of the brain to control emotions and behaviors and guide decision-making, the researchers noted.
Though it was more difficult for them, the maltreated teens were able to modulate activity in the amygdala just as well as the teens with no history of abuse. That suggests that, given the right tools, abused children may be able to control their emotional responses to real-world situations.
It also has promising implications for treatment, McLaughlin said, since the strategies participants used in the study are similar to those used in trauma therapy. Cognitive reappraisal, the strategy the teens used to regulate their emotions in the study, is a technique used in trauma-focused treatments for children.
There’s a common assumption that children subjected to abuse or trauma will have problematic emotions across the board, McLaughlin said, such as muted responses to positive situations and extreme reactions to negative ones. But the study’s findings suggest that maltreated children are perhaps more resilient and adaptable than previously thought.
“It seems that they are able to cope effectively, even in very stimulating emotional situations, if they’re taught strategies for doing so,” she said. “We think the findings are really promising.”