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The behavioural expression of fear in young children Gilbert-MacLeod, Cheryl A.

Abstract

Children, over the course of development, experience numerous situations capable of eliciting fear; however, the behaviours which children exhibit in these situations remain unclear. The investigation presented here pursued the question "how do young children express fear in a non-painful medical situation where they perceive threat from physical harm?". It is important to note that this study differentiated between fear and anxiety, however it did not examine differences between these two emotions. 116 children, between the ages of 12 and 87 months, and their parents participated in the study. Children's fine-grained behavioural responses, (i.e., facial activity) and broader behavioural displays (e.g., crying, protective behaviours) were examined during a fearful situation. The specific threat used to provoke fear was orthopedic cast removal with an oscillating saw. Few people, including adults, who have had a cast removed would challenge the notion that the oscillating saw can effectively elicit fear. Facial activity was measured with the Baby-FACS coding system and global behaviours were assessed with the Observational Scale of Behavioral Distress. Results demonstrated the existence of a constellation of facial actions and a group of more global behaviours indicative of fear in young children. The facial actions and global behaviours identified in the total sample were examined on a subset of the children who were rated as displaying clinically significant fear. The same 13 facial actions were found to cluster together in the sample of children displaying clinically significant fear. Further, global behaviours occurred with a higher frequency in this sub-sample. Age and cast location were found to predict children's fear for both classes of behaviour in that younger children and children with casts on their legs had higher facial action factor scores and OSBD scale scores than older children or those with arm casts. Finally, facial activity and global behaviours appeared to be valid measures of fear as they were both correlated to an independent observer's and the cast technician's ratings of fear. Results are discussed in relation to current theories of emotional development and implications for clinical applications are reviewed.

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