The current study examined whether children with a social anxiety disorder (SAD) demonstrate divergent facial emotion processing and a disorder-specific negative interpretation bias in the processing of facial emotional expressions. This study aimed to overcome previous study limitations by including both a nonsocially anxious control group and a healthy control group to examine whether childhood SAD is characterized by a general emotion labeling deficit, and/or by a negative interpretation bias, indicated by systematic misclassifications, or a lower threshold for recognizing threatening emotions.
Participants were 132 children aged 7–12 years (Mage = 9.15; 45.5% female). Children with SAD (n = 42) were compared to children with other, nonsocial, anxiety disorders (n = 40) and healthy control children (n = 50) on a novel facial emotion recognition task. Children judged ambiguous happy/neutral, angry/neutral and fear/neutral faces that were morphed at different intensities (10%, 30%, 50%, 70%).
Children with SAD did not differ from other groups in their accuracy of identifying emotions. They did not show systematic misclassifications or a heightened sensitivity to negative, threatening faces either. Rather, children with nonsocial anxiety disorders showed a generally heightened sensitivity to emotional faces.
The current study does not provide evidence for a general deficit in labeling of emotional faces in childhood SAD. Childhood SAD was not characterized by an interpretation bias in processing emotional faces. Children with nonsocial anxiety disorders may benefit from assistance in accurately interpreting the degree of emotionality in interpersonal situations.