Facial emotion recognition impairment predicts social and emotional problems in children with (subthreshold) ADHD

Anouck I. Staff*, Marjolein Luman, Saskia van der Oord, Catharina E. Bergwerff, Barbara J. van den Hoofdakker, Jaap Oosterlaan

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms often experience social and emotional problems. Impaired facial emotion recognition has been suggested as a possible underlying mechanism, although impairments may depend on the type and intensity of emotions. We investigated facial emotion recognition in children with (subthreshold) ADHD and controls using a novel task with children’s faces of emotional expressions varying in type and intensity. We further investigated associations between emotion recognition accuracy and social and emotional problems in the ADHD group. 83 children displaying ADHD symptoms and 30 controls (6–12 years) completed the Morphed Facial Emotion Recognition Task (MFERT). The MFERT assesses emotion recognition accuracy on four emotions using five expression intensity levels. Teachers and parents rated social and emotional problems on the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire. Repeated measures analysis of variance revealed that the ADHD group showed poorer emotion recognition accuracy compared to controls across emotions (small effect). The significant group by expression intensity interaction (small effect) showed that the increase in accuracy with increasing expression intensity was smaller in the ADHD group compared to controls. Multiple regression analyses within the ADHD group showed that emotion recognition accuracy was inversely related to social and emotional problems, but not prosocial behavior. Not only children with an ADHD diagnosis, but also children with subthreshold ADHD experience impairments in facial emotion recognition. This impairment is predictive for social and emotional problems, which may suggest that emotion recognition may contribute to the development of social and emotional problems in these children.

Original languageEnglish
JournalEuropean Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 2021

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