The role of maltreatment experience in children's understanding of the antecedents of emotion

Susan B. Perlman, Charles W. Kalish, Seth D. Pollak

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

40 Scopus citations


The ability to understand the causes and likely triggers of emotions has important consequences for children's adaptation to their social environment. Yet, little is currently known about the processes that contribute to the development of emotion understanding. To assess how well children understood the antecedents of emotional reactions in others, we presented children with a variety of emotional situations that varied in outcome and equivocality. Children were told the emotional outcome and asked to rate whether a situation was a likely cause of such an outcome. We tested the effects of maltreatment experience on children's ability to map emotions to their eliciting events and their understanding of emotion-situation pairings. The present data suggest that typically developing children are able to distinguish between common elicitors of negative and positive events. In contrast, children who develop within maltreating contexts, where emotions are extreme and inconsistent, interpret positive, equivocal, and negative events as being equally plausible causes of sadness and anger. This difference in maltreated children's reasoning about emotions suggests a critical role of experience in aiding children's mastery of the structure of interpersonal discourse.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)651-670
Number of pages20
JournalCognition and Emotion
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2008


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