A new study reveals that children with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD), including children with fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder (ARND) and alcohol-related birth defects (ARBD), show a striking developmental delay in their understanding of emotions. Even in those children with an average IQ, researchers found that their emotional understanding was lagging by two to five years behind their typically developing peers.
“Many children with FASD have considerable difficulty with managing and regulating their emotions and behavior, so it makes sense that they would have delays in emotional understanding,” says Christie Petrenko, research associate at the University of Rochester’s Mt. Hope Family Center and lead coordinator of the study.
Researchers from the University of Washington co-authored the study, which was funded by the Centers on Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
For the study, which appeared in Journal of Population Therapeutics and Clinical Pharmacology, researchers assessed 56 children with FASD, ages 6 to 13, for their emotional understanding. As defined by psychologists, emotional understanding (EU) means knowing how emotional processes work both in one’s self and in other people. This includes understanding the causes and consequences of emotions, as well as knowing how to regulate and cope with one’s feelings.
The researchers asked questions such as, “How do you know when other people are feeling sad?” and “Can someone feel mad and sad at the same time?” and scored children’s responses using the Kusche Affective Inventory-Revised (KAI-R), a standard measure of evaluating children’s emotional understanding. The study coordinators then compared the scores to existing published data from typically developing kids.
“Having well developed EU skills helps us navigate our emotional and social world more effectively,” says Petrenko. “It increases our ability to get along with others and follow social norms.”
Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, which result from prenatal alcohol exposure, are a group of developmental disorders that result in a range of impairments in the areas of impulse control, task planning, social skills, and emotion regulation.
Poor or delayed emotional understanding leaves many children with FASD to face lifelong challenges. This applies to children with fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder (ARND) and alcohol-related birth defects (ARBD).
“People with weaker EU may have poor awareness of how their emotions and behavior affect others, which can cause a lot of social problems,” Petrenko explains. “Also, kids with FASD often experience more negative emotions than other kids their age. They may also feel bad about themselves, especially if they don’t get supportive responses from adults in how to cope with strong emotions.”
The researchers conclude that treatments for FASD should therefore focus on improving emotional understanding.
“When paired with skill building in emotion regulation and support from adults, such interventions could improve the adaptive functioning of kids with FASD,” says Petrenko.
Petrenko has also published a study about the Families Moving Forward (FMF) program, which helps parents and caregivers of children with FASD interpret, understand, and properly respond to their children’s behavior.