Are Socially Anxious Children Poor or Advanced Mindreaders?

Important clinical implications for the treatment of childhood social anxiety

Why are some children more socially anxious than others? According to one line of thoughts, socially anxious children are poor at reading the mental states of others, while another line of thoughts argues that socially anxious children are actually “too emotionally intelligent”. A new study by researchers from the Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR) and University of Amsterdam (UvA) finds that socially anxious children can be both low and advanced on emotional intelligence (EI). Their findings hold important clinical implications for the treatment of childhood social anxiety. The study was published online on the 16th of May in the journal Child Development.

From an early age, children are motivated to bond with others. A key ability to form and maintain such bonds is emotional intelligence. How well children can read the emotions of other people is an aspect of emotional intelligence that affects everything, from friendships to academic achievements. For socially anxious children, emotional intelligence can be one of the most important competences to acquire. But do they have this competence to the necessary degree? Depending on which view you support, socially anxious children either lack this ability or have too much of it.

Mindreading and social anxiety

For their study, the researchers integrated these two opposing ideas and tested whether a lower or higher level of emotional intelligence corresponded to childhood social anxiety. They hereby asked a group of children aged 8-12 and their parents to report on their social anxiety levels. The researchers then examined the children’s emotional intelligence by assessing their ability to read others’ emotions (known as mind reading) by using the Reading the Mind in the Eye Test (RMET). With this test, the team was able to see how accurate children are at recognising the mental states of others based on photographs of the eye region of different people’s faces. Finally, children were asked to sing a song on stage while being observed by a small audience. During their performance, the researchers measured their blushing, an index of public self-consciousness.

Low and high EI linked to social anxiety

The results showed that both low and advanced emotional intelligence are related to childhood social anxiety. Children with clinical levels of social anxiety tend to have low emotional intelligence, while children with above average emotional intelligence tend to have sub-clinical levels of social anxiety, but only when they are highly self-conscious as a result of being exposed to the judgment of others. This suggests that, contrary to the two opposing views, both low and high emotional intelligence can be a characteristic of socially anxious children.

Intervention strategies for both groups

The team’s findings have important clinical implications for intervention efforts targeting social anxiety in children. Children with a decreased ability to mindread may be at risk of developing social anxiety disorder, whereas those with advanced mindreading abilities may also develop high levels of social anxiety if they are also highly self-conscious. Both of these disturbances in socio-cognitive abilities may have an impact on children’s social functioning in everyday life, leading them to fear and avoid social situations.

According to the research team, intervention strategies should focus on children’s socio-cognitive abilities. For children with deficits in mindreading, these efforts might focus on enhancing their socio-cognitive abilities, whereas for children with advanced mindreading abilities it might be useful to tackle excessive mindreading and deal with heightened self-consciousness and sensitivity to others’ opinions.

Publication details

Milica Nikolić*, Lisa van der Storm* (Erasmus University, Sociology Department), Cristina Colonnesi, Eddie Brummelman, Kees-Jan Kan & Susan Bögels:Are Socially Anxious Children Poor or Advanced Mindreaders?” in Child Development, 16th of May 2019, doi:10.1111/cdev.13248

*authors share first authorship

Based on press release UvA

More information

Marjolein Kooistra, press officer ESSB , | 31 6 83676038