Emotion processing in maltreated boys and girls: Evidence for latent vulnerability

Bianca Diaconu, Gregor Kohls, Jack C. Rogers, Ruth Pauli, Harriet Cornwell, Anka Bernhard, Anne Martinelli, Katharina Ackermann, Nikola Fann, Aranzazu Fernandez-Rivas, Miguel Angel Gonzalez-Torres, Maider Gonzalez de Artaza-Lavesa, Amaia Hervas, Christina Stadler, Kerstin Konrad, Christine M. Freitag, Graeme Fairchild, Pia Rotshtein, Stephane A. De Brito

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Evidence of alterations in emotion processing in maltreated youth has been hypothesized to reflect latent vulnerability for psychopathology. However, previous studies have not systematically examined the influence of psychopathology on the results. Here, we examined emotion recognition and learning in youth who differed in terms of presence vs. absence of maltreatment and psychopathology and tested for potential sex effects. Maltreatment and psychopathology were assessed in 828 youth (514 females) aged 9–18 years using diagnostic interviews and self- and parent-report questionnaires. Emotion recognition was assessed via identification of morphed facial expressions of six universal emotions. For emotion learning, reward and punishment values were assigned to novel stimuli and participants had to learn to correctly respond/withhold response to stimuli to maximize points. A three-way interaction of maltreatment by psychopathology by emotion indicated that when psychopathology was low, maltreated youth were less accurate than non-maltreated youth for happy, fear and disgust. A three-way interaction of sex, maltreatment and emotion indicated that maltreated girls and boys were impaired for fear, but girls showed an impairment for happy, while boys for disgust. There were no effects of maltreatment, psychopathology, or sex on reward learning. However, a two-way interaction between sex and maltreatment showed that maltreated girls were worse at learning from punishment relative to non-maltreated girls, while maltreated boys were better than non-maltreated boys. The study provides the first clear evidence of latent-vulnerability in emotion recognition in maltreated youth and suggests that girls and boys might be characterized by distinct profiles of emotion recognition and learning following maltreatment.

Original languageEnglish
JournalEuropean Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
Early online date4 Feb 2023
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 4 Feb 2023


  • Emotion processing
  • FemNAT-CD
  • Maltreatment
  • Psychopathology
  • Sex differences

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pediatrics, Perinatology, and Child Health
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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