Though anxiety disorders affect one in five U.S. children, they often go unrecognized. It’s an unfortunate fact that undiagnosed anxiety in kids can be linked to depression, substance abuse and poor academic performance throughout childhood and well into adulthood.
How can we do a better job at spotting children at risk for anxiety? The answer may lie in parents’ own mental health, according to a new study from Johns Hopkins Children Center that says parents with social anxiety disorder are more likely than parents with other forms of anxiety to engage in behaviors that put their children at high risk for developing angst of their own.
Past research has linked parental anxiety to anxiety in children, but it remained unclear how this “trickle down” connection actually formed, and whether a particular type of anxiety disorder in parents put kids most at risk. Social anxiety disorder is the most prevalent type of anxiety. Typically, social anxiety involves an intense fear of embarrassing oneself in social situations, or making mistakes in front of others, and being judged for those mistakes. When left unaddressed, a social phobia can become so severe that it interferes with work, school, and other ordinary activities, and can make it hard to make and keep friends.
In the study, researchers analyzed interactions between 66 anxious parents and their 66 children, ages 7 to 12. Among the parents, 21 had been previously diagnosed with social anxiety, and 45 had been diagnosed with another anxiety disorder, including generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder. The parent-child pairs were asked to work together on two tasks: prepare speeches about themselves and to replicate increasingly complex designs using an Etch-a-Sketch device. The participants were given five minutes for each task and worked in rooms under video surveillance.
Using a scale of 1 to 5, the researchers rated parental warmth and affection toward the child, criticism of the child, expression of doubts about a child’s performance and ability to complete the task, granting of autonomy, and parental over-control. Parents diagnosed with social anxiety showed less warmth and affection toward their children, criticized them more and more often expressed doubts about a child’s ability to perform the task. There were no significant differences between parents on controlling and autonomy-granting behavior.
These behaviors — including a lack of or insufficient warmth and affection and high levels of criticism and doubt leveled at the child — are known factors for increasing anxiety in children. If parents engage in these types of behaviors chronically, as might be the case for a parent suffering from an untreated social anxiety disorder, it can make it more likely for children to develop a full-blown anxiety disorder of their own.
The Hopkins team emphasizes that the study did not directly examine whether the parents’ behaviors led to anxiety in the children, but because there is plenty of evidence they do, the researchers say physicians who treat parents with social anxiety should be on alert about the potential impact on offspring.
Could this be one more reason why getting help for a social anxiety disorder is so important?
“Parental social anxiety should be considered a risk factor for childhood anxiety, and physicians who care for parents with this disorder would be wise to discuss that risk with their patients,” says Golda Ginsburgh, Ph.D., a child anxiety expert at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center and professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
Source: Trickle-Down Anxiety: Study Examines Parental Behaviors that Create Anxious Children