Emotion recognition in youth chronically victimized by their peers
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Bullying is a relationship problem defined by a power imbalance between individuals (Mahady-Wilton, Craig, & Pepler, 2000) and intent to inflict harm on another repeatedly and over time (Olweus, 2003). In the context of any relationship, the ability to quickly and accurately recognize others’ emotional states through their facial expressions enables adaptive responding (Izard et al., 2001). While emotions are at the crux of social interaction, the emotional components of the relationship between youth who bully and youth who are victimized have received little attention. No research to date has examined the emotion processes of youth who are repeatedly, or chronically, victimized by their peers. Literature suggests two contrasting explanations for emotion processing in victimized youth: 1) children who are targeted by peer bullying have emotion recognition deficits, and 2) youth who are recurrently victimized by parents show enhancements in identifying specific emotions. The current study assessed which explanation would hold for youth who were chronically victimized by peers by evaluating the emotion recognition abilities of chronically victimized youth as compared to their non-victimized peers. Fifty-two youth (10-14 years, 63.5% female, 23 victimized participants) completed an emotion recognition task. The task was comprised of two segments of 12 expressions each, consisting of happy, sad, scared, angry, disgusted, and surprised faces increasing incrementally from neutral to extreme (Gao & Maurer, 2009). Participants’ speed and accuracy at detecting these emotions were measured. Results did not support an overall deficit or enhancement for chronically victimized youth. However, despite no overall mean differences in detecting scared and surprised facial expressions, chronically victimized participants showed an improvement across segments as compared to non-victimized participants, whose scores remained consistent across trials. Findings suggest that chronically victimized youth may have a specific enhancement for identifying fear and surprise. The present study contributes to an understanding of emotion processes in youth who experience frequent peer aggression. Studying this initial stage in emotion processing may help to detect early problem behaviours in the bullying dynamic, thus making it possible to provide support to victimized youth before the roles of “victimized child” and “bullying child” become entrenched.