Caregiver Handholding Reduces Social Threat Bias in Preschool Children

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Thrasher, Cat, Psychology - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Grossmann, Tobias, AS-Psychology, University of Virginia

From early in development, attention to emotional facial expressions is biased toward threat. We examined whether caregiver availability affects children’s emotion perception and possibly reduces threat bias. In three experiments, 4 and 5-year-old children were asked to detect threatening (angry) and non-threatening (happy) facial expressions on a touch screen. Children completed the emotion detection task either with or without their caregiver sitting next to them on a bench, first using a between-subjects design where each child completed the task once (Experiment 1; N = 40) and then using a within-subjects design where each child completed the task twice (Experiment 2; N = 20). In Experiments 1 and 2, mere caregiver presence had no effect on children’s emotion detection or threat bias. In Experiment 3, we increased the salience of caregiver presence by having children complete the task while holding hands with their caregiver (Experiment 3; N = 45). In dyads reporting high quality child-caregiver relationships, handholding facilitated detection of happy faces and significantly reduced children’s threat bias. These findings suggest that caregiver touch impacts emotion perception in children as a function of relationship quality and that caregiver context plays a role in shaping children’s responses to their social environment.

MA (Master of Arts)
child development, emotion perception, regulation
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