We know that maternal depression can have a profound impact on children.  But what about maternal anxiety?  A recent article in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology suggests that mom’s anxiety may tend to transfer to her young children.  Before I start, however, let me be clear that this post is in no way intended to blame moms for their child’s anxiety.  Rather, it is meant to provide information and ideas on this possible relationship.

Pass and colleagues took a look at around 60 mothers in the UK who were diagnosed with anxiety disorders (specifically, social phobia with about half also having generalized anxiety disorder) and 60 mothers who weren’t.  They compared information gathered on their children as they were getting ready to begin formal schooling (around 4 ½ years old).  After the children completed the first term of school, the researchers gathered more information from mothers and also from teachers. 

At the first data gathering, the children were given a doll play activity (I continue to be amazed with how much children reveal about their inner lives through play) and several school-related scenarios to prompt their play.  Mothers were also asked to report on their child’s anxiety.  At the second data gathering, teachers reported on the students’ anxiety and mothers provided additional information.  Here’s what they found.

Children of anxious mothers gave “anxiously negative” responses during their play at a significantly higher rate than children of non-anxious mothers.  Further, children whose play was classified as anxiously negative were almost 7 times more likely to score in the borderline/clinical range on teacher reports of anxiety/depression and also more likely to score higher on teacher-reported social worry after completing the first term of formal schooling.   

While the researchers predicted that there would be significant differences in the children of anxious mothers and those of non-anxious mothers in the areas of attachment (parent-child bonding) and behavioral inhibition (fear and avoidance of unfamiliar situations), the groups did not differ significantly.  In other words, children of anxious moms were just as likely to be securely attached and willing to enter novel situations as those of non-anxious moms.

As is typical in research, the focus remains on the mother-child link rather than bringing dads into the mix so we don’t know if and how dad’s anxiety can impact kids or if his lack of significant anxiety can act as a buffer.  What we see is that there seems to be a relationship between socially anxious moms and kids who view the school social experience in negative ways and are seen as more anxious, depressed, and worried than their classmates.

I have sat across from many parents who have sought therapy for their child’s anxiety only to realize that they themselves harbor many of the same characteristics.  As they launch into self-blame, my response is always the same: nobody is to blame.  Let’s work on understanding this and learn and practice techniques as a family.  And that is my suggestion to readers.  If you, as a parent, find that you have significant anxiety it might be time to take a look at your child, too.  Conversely, if your child seems to have a lot of anxiety, it might be a good idea to see if it also resides in you.  There are so many solid, research-supported ways to manage and decrease anxiety in people of all ages.  And doing so can open up a whole new world of being. 

Thanks for reading.  -Anita

Source:  Pass, L., Arteche, A., Cooper, P., Creswell, C., & Murray, L. (2012). Doll play narratives about starting school in children of socially anxious mothers, and their relation to subsequent school-based anxiety. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology. DOI: 10.1007/s10802-012-9645-4

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