Brains of Abused Teenagers Show ‘Encouraging’ Ability to Regulate Emotions

Study published in Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry looks at patterns of emotion regulation in the brains of children aged 13-19 years who have been abused

Washington D.C., August 24, 2015

Children who have been abused typically experience more intense emotions than their peers who have not been abused. This is often considered a byproduct of living in volatile, dangerous environments. A recent study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (JAACAP) set to find out what happens when these children are taught how to regulate their emotions. Could that better help them cope with difficult situations?

The team of researchers from the University of Washington studied what happens in the brains of abused children (ages 13-19) when they viewed emotional images, and then tried to control their responses to them. The researchers found that with a little guidance, these children have a surprising ability to regulate their emotions.

“They were just as able [as peers who were not abused] to modulate their emotional responses when they were taught strategies for doing so,” said Kate McLaughlin, lead author and Professor of Psychology at Washington University.

The study involved 42 boys and girls age 13 to 19, half of whom had been physically and/or sexually abused. The researchers tracked the teens’ brain activity as they were shown a series of photographs.

The teens were first shown neutral, positive and negative images and instructed to let their emotions unfold naturally. Then they were shown more photos and told to try to regulate their responses. The children were taught cognitive reappraisal, a strategy that involves thinking about a situation differently to alter the emotional response to it.

In both exercises, the positive images generated little difference in brain activity between the two groups. But when looking at negative images, the maltreated teens had more activity in brain regions involved in identifying potential threats, including the amygdala, than the control group. Though it was more difficult for them, the maltreated teens were able to modulate activity in the amygdala as well as the participants with no history of abuse.

“This has promising implications for treatment”, said McLaughlin. “Since the strategies participants used in the study are similar to those used in trauma therapy. Specifically, cognitive reappraisal, the strategy children used to regulate their emotions in the study, is a core technique used in trauma-focused treatments for children.”

The article “Child Maltreatment and Neural Systems Underlying Emotion Regulation” by Katie A. McLaughlin, Matthew Peverill, Andrea L. Gold, Sonia Alves, and Margaret A. Sheridan ( appears in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Volume 54, Issue 9 (September 2015), published by Elsevier.


Notes for editors
Full text of the article is available to credentialed journalists upon request; contact Mary Billingsley at +1 202 587 9672 or Journalists wishing to interview the authors may contact Dr. Katie A. McLaughlin at

All articles published in JAACAP are embargoed until the day they are published as in press corrected proofs online at Articles cannot be publicized as in press accepted manuscripts. Contents of the publication should not be released to or by the media or government agencies prior to the embargo date.

Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (JAACAP) is the official publication of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. JAACAP is the leading journal focusing exclusively on today's psychiatric research and treatment of the child and adolescent. Published twelve times per year, each issue is committed to its mission of advancing the science of pediatric mental health and promoting the care of youth and their families.

The journal's purpose is to advance research, clinical practice, and theory in child and adolescent psychiatry. It is interested in manuscripts from diverse viewpoints, including genetic, epidemiological, neurobiological, cognitive, behavioral, psychodynamic, social, cultural, and economic. Studies of diagnostic reliability and validity, psychotherapeutic and psychopharmacological treatment efficacy, and mental health services effectiveness are encouraged. The journal also seeks to promote the well-being of children and families by publishing scholarly papers on such subjects as health policy, legislation, advocacy, culture and society, and service provision as they pertain to the mental health of children and families.

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Media contact
Mary Billingsley
JAACAP Editorial Office
+1 202 587 9672