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The role of behavioural inhibition in preschoolers' emotion understanding

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(Dissertation) Ph.D.
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Behavioural inhibition to the unfamiliar is a temperamental style of reacting to novel situations, peers or adults with fear, wariness and avoidance. Childhood behavioural inhibition is a well-established risk factor for anxiety disorders, particularly social phobia. However, there is presently a gap in the literature with regard to possible links between behavioural inhibition and children’s social development, including their social cognition. There is evidence that behavioural inhibition poses a challenge for social interaction, yet research to date has not investigated relations of this temperamental trait with preschoolers’ social understanding (i.e., false-belief and emotion understanding). Ninety-six preschoolers between the ages of 3 ½ and 5 years and their mothers participated in a study examining associations among behavioural inhibition, social understanding and maternal responses to children’s negative emotionality. Mothers completed questionnaires while preschoolers engaged in tasks measuring behavioural inhibition, false-belief understanding, emotion understanding and receptive language skills. It was expected that more inhibited preschoolers would demonstrate difficulties in emotion understanding while behavioural inhibition would be unrelated to false-belief understanding. It was further predicted that maternal responses to negative emotionality would moderate relations between behavioural inhibition and emotion understanding. As expected, behavioural inhibition, measured both observationally and by maternal report, was negatively associated with children’s emotion understanding, but was unrelated to false-belief understanding. Results held after controlling for the effects of age and language skills. Moreover, relations between behavioural inhibition and emotion understanding appeared to be largely attributable to difficulty understanding emotions in situations requiring children to inhibit their own typical emotional reaction when judging the feelings of another. With the exception of an additional predicted negative correlation between emotion understanding and maternal minimization responses, all additional hypotheses, including the moderation model were not supported. Implications of the results, including suggestions for early intervention and future research directions are discussed.
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