Parents with social anxiety disorder are more inclined than parents with other forms of anxiety disorders to behave in ways that put their kids at a high risk for developing stress of their own, suggests a new study by researchers at John Hopkins Children’s Center.

Earlier studies have shown connections between parental anxiety and anxiety in children, but nobody really knew whether people with certain anxiety disorders took part more frequently in anxiety-provoking behaviors. This new report, published in the journal Child Psychiatry and Human Development, suggests they do.

The team identified a branch of behaviors in parents with social anxiety disorder, the most common form of anxiety, and in doing so cleared up some confusion that has covered the “trickle-down anxiety”, frequently seen in parent-child pairs.

Behaviors such as an absence of insufficient warmth and affection, as well as elevated levels of uncertainty and criticism directed towards the child, can heighten anxiety in children, and if they become chronic, can increase the chance for the children to develop an advanced anxiety disorder of their own.

The study’s senior investigator Golda Ginsburg, 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, says, “There is a broad range of anxiety disorders so what we did was home in on social anxiety, and we found that anxiety-promoting parental behaviors may be unique to the parent’s diagnosis and not necessarily common to all those with anxiety.”

The investigators stressed that the study did not specifically examine whether the parents’ behaviors caused anxiety in their children, however there is proof that they do. The researchers emphasize that health professionals who treat parents with social anxiety should be aware of the possible influence it has on children.

Ginsburg explains, “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.”

Anxiety is the outcome of a detailed interplay between genes and environment. The researchers say that although genetics cannot be controlled, environmental factors can be altered in an attempt to diminish or prevent anxiety in the kids of anxious parents.

Ginsburg says:

“Children with an inherited propensity to anxiety do not just become anxious because of their genes, so what we need are ways to prevent the environmental catalysts, in this case, parental behaviors, from unlocking the underlying genetic mechanisms responsible for the disease.”

Ginsberg and his team examined interactions between 66 anxious parents and their 66 children, who ranged in age from 7 to 12 years. Among the parents, 21 had already been diagnosed with social anxiety, and 45 had been diagnosed with other anxiety disorders like generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

The parent-child pairs then worked together on two items: duplicating increasingly hard designs using an Etch-a-Sketch, and arranging a speech about themselves. Participants had 5 minutes to complete each task and were observed by video.

The researchers then measured the following factors using a scale of 1 to 5:

  • parental warmth and affection directed at the child
  • criticism of the child
  • expression of doubts concerning a child’s performance and ability to complete the task
  • granting of self-rule
  • parental over-control

The parents diagnosed with social anxiety exhibited less warmth and affection towards their children, criticized them more, and expressed doubts about a child’s ability to complete a task more often. There were no noteworthy differences between parents on granting self-rule and controlling.

Prevention of childhood anxiety is important, because anxiety disorders affect one in five U.S. children, many of whom are undiagnosed. These unrecognized disorders can cause depression, poor academic performance during childhood and into adulthood, as well as substance abuse.

Written by Kelly Fitzgerald