Intimate Partner Violence Exposure and Childhood Psychopathology: Associations with Discriminating Fearful and Angry Faces in Young Children

Brandon L. Goldstein, Damion J. Grasso, Kimberly J. McCarthy, Lauren S. Wakschlag, Daniel S. Pine, Margaret J. Briggs-Gowan*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Childhood exposure to traumatic violence may shape how children respond to threatening faces and increase risk for psychopathology. Maltreated children may exhibit altered processing of threatening faces; however, the effects of witnessing intimate partner violence (IPV) on children’s discrimination of facial expressions is under-studied. Emotional face processing differentially relates to psychopathology, with some evidence suggesting improved detection of angry faces in children with fear-related anxiety symptoms, whereas externalizing symptoms are associated with poorer detection of fearful faces and perhaps emotional faces broadly. In this cross-sectional study, we examined discrimination of threatening emotional faces (angry, fearful) in relation to experiences of probable abuse and witnessing of physical IPV, as well as psychopathology. Children (N = 137, mean age = 5.01 years, SD = 0.81) completed a “face in the crowd task” designed to examine discrimination of angry and fearful faces. Children either searched for an angry face among fearful distractor faces or a fearful face among angry distractors. Probable child abuse, witnessed IPV, and symptoms were assessed in semi-structured maternal interviews. Children who witnessed violence showed poorer accuracy when fearful faces were the target; however, effects for probable abuse were non-significant. Greater fear-related anxiety symptoms were associated with poorer accuracy for fearful faces. Externalizing symptoms were associated with poorer overall accuracy. Findings suggest that IPV and fear-related anxiety symptoms were associated with difficulty detecting fearful faces when angry distractors were present, consistent with prior research. Implications of violence- and symptom-associated deficits in emotional face processing are discussed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)967-978
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Family Violence
Issue number8
StatePublished - Nov 2021


  • Externalizing
  • Face processing
  • Preschool
  • Psychopathology
  • Threat
  • Violence

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Clinical Psychology
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Law


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