Children who have been abused or maltreated show an encouraging ability to regulate their emotions, says a new study.
University of Washington researchers found that with a little guidance, maltreated children have a surprising ability to regulate their emotions.
Lead author Kate McLaughlin said they were just as able to modulate their emotional responses when they were taught strategies for doing so.
The study involves 42 boys and girls age 13 to 19, half of whom had been physically and/or sexually abused.
Using magnetic resonance imaging, the researchers tracked the teens' brain activity as they were shown a series of photographs. The teens were first shown neutral, positive and negative images and were told to let their emotions unfold naturally.
McLaughlin said the exercise was intended to model real-world emotional situations. The researchers concluded that the positive images generated little difference in brain activity between the two groups.
In a second exercise, participants were shown more photos and told to try and increase their emotional responses to the positive images and scale them back when viewing the negative images. Participants thought about the negative images in ways that made them psychologically more distant.
For the positive cues, they thought about the images in a way that made them more realistic, such as imagining that they were part of the happy scene or that it involved people they knew. The negative photos caused the maltreated teens' brains to go into overdrive, drawing more heavily on regions in the prefrontal cortex to tamp down their feelings.
The study suggests that given the right tools, maltreated children might be able to control their emotional responses to real-world situations. McLaughlin said that it seemed that the maltreated children were able to cope effectively, even in very stimulating emotional situations.
The study is published in the Journal of American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.