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Emotion Understanding in Children with Developmental Language Disorder

Tsou, Y. T., Wiefferink, C. H., Broekhof, E., & Rieffe, C. (2023). Longitudinal study on emotion understanding in children with and without developmental language disorder. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 137, 104493. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ridd.2023.104493


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Key terms in this paper:

  • Emotion understanding: Knowing the difference between separate emotions. Being able to identify emotions from expressions. Understanding how behaviours can affect emotions.


Aim of the paper:

To develop emotion understanding, children need to watch, listen, and take part in social interactions where emotions are shown and communicated. This can be harder for children with DLD because of their language difficulties. They may miss words in conversations, take more time to process sentences, or struggle to talk about their feelings. Therefore, children with DLD can find it harder to understand emotions.


The present study investigated:

  1. Which parts of emotion understanding are particularly difficult for children with DLD.

  2. Whether these difficulties change over time.


Different emotion understanding skills were measured using three tasks. The participants were children with and without DLD. These tasks were completed when they were 3.5 years old, and again when they were 5.5 years old. In the first task, children had to match different emotions (e.g., happy versus sad) to different pictures of real people. In the second task, children were shown different drawings of faces and asked which looked happy, sad, fearful, and angry. In the third task, children were told short stories (e.g., about a boy falling from his bicycle) and had to name the emotion that the person in the story would feel. They then chose which of four drawings of faces matched the emotion they named.


What was found:

At 3.5-years-old, children with DLD found emotion understanding a lot harder than children without DLD. However, over time children with DLD rapidly improved their emotion understanding skills. By 5.5-years-old, children with DLD performed similarly to their typically developing peers on the second and third tasks. These tasks involved identifying emotions from drawings of faces.

However, at 5.5 years old, children with DLD still struggled more than their peers with the first task. This task involved identifying emotions from real-life faces of people instead of drawings of faces. This could be because real-life facial expressions can be more subtle. Additionally, interpreting real-life emotions from faces is something children learn during their daily social interactions. In contrast, they might practice identifying emotions from drawings much more in school.


What does this mean?

Children with DLD can catch up over time with their typically developing peers on lots of different emotion understanding skills. A more inclusive daily social environment can support children with DLD in understanding subtle emotions in real-life situations.


Where can I read this paper?

This paper is open access, which means everyone can read it. Please click here to find the full paper: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ridd.2023.104493

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