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, according to a small study of parent-child pairs conducted at Johns Hopkins Children's Center.
Authors of the federally funded study say past research has linked parental anxiety to anxiety in children, but it remained unclear whether people with certain anxiety disorders engaged more often in anxiety-provoking behaviors. Based on the new study findings, they do. A report on the team's findings appears online ahead of print in the journal Child Psychiatry and Human Development.
Specifically, the Johns Hopkins researchers identified a subset of behaviors in parents with social anxiety disorder -- the most prevalent type of anxiety -- and in doing so clarified some of the confusion that has shrouded the trickle-down anxiety often seen in parent-child pairs.
These behaviors included a lack of or insufficient warmth and affection and high levels of criticism and doubt leveled at the child. Such behaviors, the researchers say, are well known to increase anxiety in children and -- if engaged in chronically -- can make it more likely for children to develop a full-blown anxiety disorder of their own, the investigators say.
"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," says study 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.
The Johns 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.
"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," Ginsburg said.
Anxiety is the result of a complex interplay between genes and environment, the researchers say, and while there's not much to be done about one's genetic makeup, controlling external factors can go a long way toward mitigating or preventing anxiety in the offspring of anxious parents.
"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," Ginsburg says.