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Emotion understanding and theory of mind among maltreated children in foster care: Evidence of deficits



Children in foster care are at heightened risk for poor psychosocial outcomes. This study examined differences in two areas that may be associated with many of these outcomes, emotion understanding and theory of mind, using a sample of 3- to 5-year-old maltreated foster children (n = 60) and a comparison group of same-aged, low-income, nonmaltreated children living with their biological families (n = 31). Being in foster care was significantly associated with worse emotion understanding and theory of mind capabilities, even when accounting for age, intelligence, and executive function. There were no significant associations between length of time in foster care, number of transitions, and emotion understanding and theory of mind. Results help to expand knowledge about the cognitive and affective deficits of children in foster care and suggest that interventions targeted at these deficits include an emphasis on emotion understanding and theory of mind.Support for this research was provided by grants from NIMH (R01 MH59780 and R01 MH65046), NIMH and Office of Research on Minority Health (P30 MH46690), and NICHD (R01 HD34511). The authors express appreciation to Lou Moses and Seth Pollak for their comments on an earlier draft of the paper, to the staff and families of the Early Intervention Foster Care project, and to Matthew Rabel for editorial assistance.


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Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Katherine Pears, Oregon Social Learning Center, 160 East 4th Avenue, Eugene, OR 97401-2426; E-mail:


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