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Children of Depressed Parents Are Especially Sensitive to Facial Cues

Update Date: May 17, 2013 04:34 PM EDT

Children living in households with depressed parents can easily detect their parents' sadness, according to a new study.

Researchers at the University of Michigan say that children, especially boys, who have at least one depressed parent, are very skilled at detecting facial cues. The study found that boys exposed to depression in the household are especially sensitive to facial expressions of sadness.

Investigators analyzed data on 104 children aged seven to 13. About 60 percent of the children in the study were at high-risk for depression because their parents were diagnosed with depression.  Participants were asked to examine pictures of facial expressions that varied from neutral to sadness and anger, or looked at images of faces morphing from anger to sadness.  The children were then asked to say whether the faces in the pictures showed sadness, anger or no emotion.

The study found that high-risk boys were significantly more sensitive to subtle expressions of sadness than their peers.  Researchers said that high-risk boys were even more sensitive to facial expressions than high-risk girls.

Study co-author Nestor Lopez-Duran said that more and more evidence suggests that the underlying processes that put kids at risk for depression and other conditions may be different for boys and girls. Girls tend to be more social and likely to ask others for support when they are sad.  However, sensitivity to sadness may negatively influence how boys see their social world, and make them less social in important situation.

However, researchers said it's also possible that this sensitivity to sadness does not reflect an underlying vulnerability. This unique skill may actually be an adaptive strategy that develops in response to the environment.  Researchers explain that boys are more likely than girls to receive harsh punishment, and parental depression increases the risk of using harsh punishment. Therefore, it makes sense that high-risk boys developed this unique skill to reduce the possibility of getting harsh punishment, so they can get out of the way when she see that mom or dad is upset.

Lopez-Duran said that boys of depressed parents appear to be very perceptive of sadness, and that sometimes these boys may even be able to tell when parents are upset even when parents think they are not showing signs.

The study is published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

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