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Seeing is Believing: Sensitivity through Children’s Attention to Emotions

2nd February 2021 - By Prof Patrick Davies

About the authors

As a developmental psychologist, Dr Davies focuses on understanding the mechanisms and conditions underpinning the interplay between the quality of family relationship characteristics and child functioning. He oversees several federally funded projects that utilize longitudinal designs with multiple methods and multiple levels of analysis (e.g., relational, behavioural, neurobiological, neurocognitive, genetic).


Children’s sensitivity to distress in contexts of interparental conflict is stronger for children who devote more attention to angry and fearful emotions. However, children who attended to these negative emotions longer exhibited more distress when interparental conflict was elevated, but also lower than expected distress when interparental conflict was low.

Study Background and Aims

Witnessing anger and hostility during interparental conflict increases children’s risk for psychological difficulties, including emotional and disruptive behaviour problems [1]. Research has indicated that children’s distress responses to interparental conflicts help explain why interparental conflict increases their risk for psychopathology.

In the first part of this cascade, exposure to interparental conflict has been shown to predict increases in children’s emotional distress responses to subsequent conflicts between their parents. In the second part of the cascade, these distress responses, in turn, are predictors of children’s later psychopathology.

Evidence further suggests that some children are more sensitive to experiencing this cascade than others. Although theories have indicated that children’s processing of emotions may be a source of differences between children in their sensitivity to interparental conflict [2, 3], studies have not yet tested this possibility.

Therefore, we examined whether interparental conflict more strongly predicted distress responses to conflict and psychological problems for children who had pre-existing biases to attend to angry, fearful, sad, and happy emotional expressions.

Study Design

In this study [4], we collected data from 243 children and their parents at three annual time points. At the first time point, children were in preschool and 4 years old. Roughly equal numbers of boys and girls participated.

Trained raters assessed the level of interparental conflict in the family at the first time point through observations of parental disagreements in our lab and ratings of maternal interview responses about the characteristics of conflicts that occur with their partners at home.

Trained raters also measured children’s behavioral distress responses (e.g., signs of worry, concern, and intervention) to parental disagreements in the lab at the first and second time points.

Mothers, their partners, and teachers completed measures of children’s emotional and disruptive behaviour problems at the first and third time points.

Finally, children were presented with pairs of adult faces on the computer, with one face displaying the target emotion (i.e., angry, sad, fearful, happy) and the other displaying a neutral emotion.

We measured their attention biases to each emotion by calculating the amount of time children looked at the target emotion faces relative to the neutral faces using an eye tracking machine.

Key Findings

Replicating previous research, interparental conflict predicted children’s greater distress responses to conflict over a one-year period and greater distress, in turn, was associated with increases in their psychological problems over a two-year period.

However, the strength of this risk cascade varied depending on children’s attention processing of emotion stimuli. Children who devoted more attention to angry and fearful emotions were more sensitive to interparental conflict in a “for better” and “for worse” manner predicted by Environmental Sensitivity theory [2].

On the “for worse” side, children with attention biases to these emotions experienced substantially more distress to conflict when they had previously experienced high levels of interparental conflict.

On the “for better” side, children with these attention biases exhibited disproportionately lower distress responses to conflict when their prior exposure to interparental conflict was low.

General Conclusions and Implications

Our findings support the notion that children’s biases to attend to angry and fearful emotions is a marker of their sensitivity to family conflict. Although these biases incur significant costs in adverse family contexts, they also carry substantial benefits under more benign family conditions.

If our findings are replicated, they offer some encouraging news for clinical initiatives designed to improve children’s well-being. In particular, the results suggest that children who have significant attention biases toward angry and fearful affect may benefit most from interventions that provide social support to children or promote family harmony.


  1. Harold, G. T., & Sellers, R. (2018). Annual research review: Interparental conflict and youth psychopathology: An evidence review and practice focused update. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 59, 374-402.
  2. Pluess, M. (2015). Individual differences in environmental sensitivity. Child Development Perspectives, 9, 138-143.
  3. Rodman, A. M., Jenness, J. L., Weissman, D. G., Pine, D. S., & McLaughlin,K. A. (2019). Neurobiological markers of resilience to depression following childhood maltreatment: The role of neural circuits supporting the cognitive control of emotion. Biological Psychiatry, 86, 464–473.
  4. Davies, P. T., Thompson, M. J., Hentges, R. F., Coe, J. L., & Sturge-Apple, M. L. (2020). Children’s attentional biases to emotions as sources of variability in their vulnerability to interparental conflict. Developmental Psychology, 56, 1343–1359.