Emerging research on pediatric social anxiety suggests a source of the problem may be the inability of the child to appropriately perceive facial clues.
For example, children suffering from extreme social anxiety may confuse angry faces with sad ones.
Emory psychologists Steve Nowicki and Marshall Duke have found that in a range of children with behavioral disorders, including high-functioning autism, direct teaching can improve their non-verbal communication.
“If you misread facial expressions, you’re in social trouble, no matter what other social skills you have,” said Nowicki, who developed the tests used in the current study. “It can make life very difficult, because other people’s faces are like a prism through which we look at the world.”
The importance and influence of nonverbal communication on a child’s development has been studied for over two decades. Imagine the difficulty a child may have if he or she cannot determine (through facial clues) if an individual is angry. In such cases, a socially anxious child may view the other individual as being sad, rather than angry — a potentially dangerous misread.
Some socially anxious children long to interact with others, Nowicki said, and may try to comfort someone they think is sad, but who is actually angry.
“They want to help, because they’re good kids,” Nowicki said. “I’ve seen these kids trying to make a friend, and keep trying, but they keep getting rebuffed and are never aware of the reason why.”
It is unclear whether misreading the facial expression is linked to the cause of the anxiety, or merely contributing to it.
By identifying the patterns of errors in nonverbal communication, Nowicki hopes to create better diagnostic tools and interventions for those affected with behavioral disorders.
“When I first started this work, people asked me, why are you doing this? Everybody can recognize emotions in faces,” Nowicki said.
Nonverbal communication was not taken that seriously, and relegated to popular magazine articles like, “Seven ways to improve your body language.”
In his clinical practice, however, Nowicki noticed that some children who had trouble socializing appeared to misinterpret nonverbal clues. He sought ways to measure the deficits and remediate them.
“My heart went out to these kids,” he said. “I had the idea that nonverbal communication could be taught. It’s a skill, not something mysterious.”
Source: Emory University