How A Father Thinks Can Affect His Child's Anxiety Levels

If something is broken and you want to understand how to fix it, knowing how it is built is helpful. Having knowledge of how all the various pieces come together, you can identify more precisely when problems arise and why. Likewise, understanding how anxiety disorders develop could lead to much more targeted therapies and medication. Perhaps, we could even find ways to prevent such disorders from occurring in the first place if we better understood the causes and sources.

Parents Could Be One of the Sources

One source of anxiety disorders seems to be our parents. That is, children of anxious parents are more likely to be anxious themselves1-2. A major contributing factor here is genetics. If parents have genes that predispose them to anxiety disorders, then they can pass such genes on to their children, which would make them more likely to develop anxiety disorders. However, genes account for only part of the picture (50% in fact3), meaning that parents must be transferring anxiety to their children through other mechanisms as well.

One route through which this transmission might occur is through what are known as "cognitive styles." Your cognitive style represents the broad beliefs you have about how the world works and is your general framework for interpreting and remembering events4-5. In short, it serves as the lens through which you view the world. In some ways, your cognitive style is somewhat like a mental cheat sheet that allows the brain to quickly determine whether an event is good or bad and enact the appropriate response.

How You Think Affects How You Feel

Though typically helpful, your cognitive style can cause trouble if it consistently leads you to improperly react to situations. One such negative cognitive style is called the Looming Cognitive Style (LCS)5-6. People who are high in LCS are much more likely to see negative events or threats as "approaching" or "escalating." They might interpret a strange sensation in their chest as the beginnings of a potentially dangerous heart condition or perceive normal rush hour traffic as rapidly escalating to extremely dangerous conditions.

Not surprisingly, researchers have found that having a strong propensity towards LCS is associated with having worse symptoms of anxiety7. Not only that, but it also predicts future anxiety in that a person high in LCS is more likely to experience symptoms of anxiety in the future8-9. Importantly for researchers, LCS is associated with anxiety specifically and not other mental disorders such as depression10-11. This aspect is crucial given that disorders like depression often overlap with anxiety, making it difficult to tell them apart12.

Parent Thinking Style Can Cause Child Anxiety?

Given the association between LCS and anxiety, Dr. John Riskind of George Mason University and his colleagues at the University of Firenze and University of Padova, both in Italy, wanted to investigate whether parents' propensity towards LCS was associated with their children's anxiety levels. Because LCS affects how people interpret and, consequently, react to events, a parent high in LCS could effectively "model" anxiety for their children such that they are more likely to react in an anxious way to stressful events. In this vein, the researchers were also interested in whether fathers or mothers had a larger impact on their child's anxiety levels.

In their study, the authors recruited 379 undergraduate students from Italian universities, along with 317 of their mothers and 286 of their fathers. Participants were asked to complete measures of their current symptoms of anxiety as well as their propensity towards LCS. In examining their results, the researchers found that, on average, fathers who had a stronger tendency towards LCS had children who were more anxious, whereas mothers' tendency towards LCS did not seem to have any effect on their children's anxiety. Put differently, children with fathers who had a strong propensity to see stressful events as escalating or worsening were more likely to be anxious.

Fathers' – and Not Mothers' – Thinking Style Affects Child Anxiety

This study is the first to show that parents' cognitive style can play a role in their children's anxiety levels. Specifically, it demonstrates that LCS, which predicts future anxiety for an individual, can also predict the level of anxiety experienced by that individual's child. However, this finding was true for only fathers and not mothers – why? The researchers were not able to provide a definitive answer to this question, but they did have some ideas. They hypothesized that it might have to do with the traditional role played by fathers in Western families. According to the ideals of Western culture, fathers are expected to be the protectors of the family13, and there is evidence that fathers play a slightly greater role in helping children achieve a sense of autonomy and control14. In short, fathers are supposed to be the "strong" ones, who model self-control under stressful conditions. If instead they model an increasing sense of fear and anxiety in such situations, this behavior could undermine children's sense of safety or control.

This explanation is highly speculative. One limitation is that is only works in the context of traditional Western families. In less traditional circumstances where parents play a more balanced role or where both parents are of the same gender, this relationship between parents' tendency towards LCS and children's anxiety may look very different or maybe not exist at all. Much more work is needed to fully understand how parents' thinking shapes their children, but this study moves us one step closer to a complete picture of how anxiety disorders develop.


Date of original publication:
Updated on: February 17, 2017


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