Study: Anxious Parents May Attribute Negative Emotions to Their Children

Anxiety runs in families. Children of anxious parents are over five times more likely than those of non-anxious parents to have an anxiety disorder (Budinger et al., 2013).

A twin study has shown that genetics play a role in children’s anxiety (Eley et al., 2003), but we also know that anxious parents are more likely to engage in behaviors that promote anxiety.

Anxiety causes people to be sensitive to environmental “threats”, i.e. situations that can cause anxiety in themselves. But will anxiety cause people to be sensitive to situations that can cause anxiety in their children?

New experimental research by Cartwright-Hatton and colleagues (2014), published in the journal Psychology and Psychotherapy, shows that anxious parents tend to over-attribute negative emotions to children.

More specifically, when the participants (parents) were manipulated to feel social anxiety, they tended to view faces and voices of children as more sad compared to their non-anxious counterparts. Why is that? We might say that the parents’ anxiety caused an attentional bias toward threats in the children’s environment.

The authors put it this way:

“… Induced parental social anxiety has an impact on automatic processing of children’s emotion.”

Photo: Vladimir Pustovit