People with critical parents pay less attention to the emotions on other people’s faces, researchers have found.
Looking at and reading emotional expression in other people’s faces helps us build rewarding relationships.
Avoiding these expressions could help to explain how critical parenting can lead to depression and anxiety in later life, since relationships are so critical to well-being.
Ms Kiera James, the study’s first author, said:
“These findings suggest that children with a critical parent might avoid paying attention to faces expressing any type of emotion.
This behavior might affect their relationships with others and could be one reason why children exposed to high levels of criticism are at risk for things like depression and anxiety.”
The results come from a study in which parents talked to their 7 to 11-year-old children for five minutes.
The researchers looked to see how much criticism there was in this segment.
Subsequently, children subject to more criticism avoided looking at pictures of faces showing any type of emotional expression.
Ms James said:
“We know from previous research that people have a tendency to avoid things that make them uncomfortable, anxious, or sad because such feelings are aversive.
We also know that children with a critical parent are more likely to use avoidant coping strategies when they are in distress than children without a critical parent.
Given this research, and our findings that children with a critical parent pay less attention to all emotional facial expressions than children without a critical parent, one possible explanation is that the children with a critical parent avoid looking at any facial expressions of emotion.
This may help them avoid exposure to critical expressions, and, by extension, the aversive feelings they might associate with parental criticism.
That said, it may also prevent them from seeing positive expressions from others.”
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
The study was published in the Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology (James et al., 2018).