Youth With Conduct Disorder, PTSD May Misread Facial Expressions


New research links the antisocial behaviors of teens with PTSD or conduct disorders to a misreading of the social cues in facial expressions.

Earlier studies showed that teens experiencing trauma are at increased risk for PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), and conduct disorder. Often co-occurring, these two disorders can have a tremendous negative impact on the physical, mental, and social development of adolescents.

Traumatic experience has also been associated with problems recognizing facial expressions, a skill that is critical to effective communication and social functioning.

The current research out of NYU found that adolescents with PTSD symptoms tend to read sad and angry facial expressions as fearful, and teens with conduct disorder symptoms are more likely to read sad faces as angry.

The 371 study participants were aged 13 to 19, and attending therapeutic day schools. Seventeen percent of them had at least one PTSD symptom, and 12.4 percent met the diagnostic criteria for PTSD. Eighty-five percent of the adolescents had at least one symptom of conduct disorder, and about 30 percent met the diagnostic criteria for that disorder. Seventeen percent of the teens had symptoms of conduct disorder and PTSD.

Investigators found that adolescents with severer PTSD symptoms were more likely to label angry and sad expressions as fearful. “Fear is particularly relevant for understanding PTSD, as the disorder has been associated with a ‘survival mode’ of functioning characterized by an overactive fight-or-flight response and increased threat perception,” said researcher Shabnam Javdani, an assistant professor at NYU.

Teens with conduct disorder tended to identify sad faces as being angry, suggesting they are less able to recognize another’s pain. “Difficulty interpreting displays of sadness and misidentifying sadness as anger may contribute to the impaired affective bonding, low empathy, and callous behavior observed in teens with conduct disorder,” says Javdani.

According to the researchers, their study results indicate that improving the identification of facial expressions should be a treatment goal for young individuals with PTSD and conduct disorder symptoms.

Source: Science Daily
photo credit: Tammy McGary

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