The present study sought to extend previous work by examining the impact of parental modeling of anxiety on child anxiety level, anxious cognitions, desired avoidance, and spelling performance among school-aged children. Further, the study tested whether the impact of parental anxious modeling on indices of anxiety among children differed according to parent gender. In order to more clearly determine the direction of effects between parental modeling of anxiety and child anxiety, both aims of the current study were tested using a novel experimental paradigm.
Main Effects of Parental Modeling of Anxiety
Consistent with our hypotheses, children reported greater levels of anxiety, anxious cognitions, and desired avoidance of the testing situation when their parents modeled anxious behavior and cognitions relative to when they modeled non-anxious behavior and cognitions. These findings are in agreement with both theoretically-derived etiological models of the transmission of behaviors, attitudes, and emotional reactions in general (Bandura, 1977
), and anxiety in particular (Bandura, 1986
; Barlow, 1988
), from parent to child. In addition, our results are similar to prior studies that have examined the impact of maternal anxious modeling on observed anxious behavior among both infants (de Rosnay et al., 2006
) and toddlers (Gerull & Rapee, 2002
). Importantly though, and in accord with findings from previous quasi-experimental work (Chorpita et al., 1996
; Cobham et al., 1999
; Creswell et al., 2005
; Creswell et al., 2006
; Dadds et al., 1996; Kortlander, et al., 1997
; Shortt et al., 2001
; Micco & Ehrenreich, 2008
; Muris et al., 1996
), our study demonstrated that the impact of parental modeling of anxiety on children extends beyond the domain of child anxious behavior and may directly impact subjective feelings and cognitions among children during middle childhood. Further, our results are among the first to indicate that the effect of parental modeling of anxiety on child anxiety is not unique to mothers, but a phenomenon common to both mothers and fathers.
In contrast to our expectations, however, there was no effect of parental modeling of anxiety on child spelling performance. That is, regardless of whether parents modeled anxious or non-anxious behavior and cognitions in relation to the spelling test, children’s performance was similar across conditions. Such findings are in contrast to previous work that would suggest a negative effect of parental modeling of anxiety on child performance given the inverse relationship observed between levels of child anxiety and test performance (Horn & Dollinger, 1989
; Ma, 1999
). Our failure to detect differences in spelling performance between conditions may be due to the nature of the sample and/or the nature of the performance task. For example, according to the Yerkes-Dodson principle (1908)
and previous work examining the effect of arousal on performance (Anderson, Revelle, & Lynch, 1989
), the inverse relationship between anxiety and performance may occur only at high levels. Because our sample consisted exclusively of psychologically healthy children, the level of anxiety children experienced during the anxious condition may have failed to reach the intensity necessary to impair their spelling performance. It may also be that the spelling tests administered to children lacked the degree of sensitivity that is required to identify variations in anxiety among children, yielding no significant difference in their ability across conditions. For instance, research in the area of learning and memory indicate that short-term or prospective memory tasks are particularly susceptible to the effects of anxiety, yet long-term memory tasks, such as word spelling, may be less vulnerable to stress (Harris & Cumming, 2003
). In the current study, we selected a performance task commonly encountered by children in order to reduce possible reactivity to an unfamiliar or novel task. Nevertheless, future studies that examine these and similar research questions might consider using a performance task that more precisely assesses the effects of anxiety.
Interaction Effects of Parent Anxious Modeling and Parent Gender
Perhaps of most interest, results of the current study indicated that fathers had a greater effect on child anxiety level and anxious cognitions relative to mothers. Although such findings contrast with the results of one correlational study that found a relation between parental expressed fear and child fear level to be present only for mothers (Muris, et al., 1996
), they are in agreement with another study that found relations between parent anxious verbalizations and child anxious interpretations and avoidance to be larger for fathers relative to mothers (Chorpita et al., 1996
). However, because the assessment of parental expressed fear in the study of Muris and colleagues (1996)
was derived from a self-report item, it is possible that mothers or fathers inaccurately recalled or endorsed the degree to which they expressed fears with children. However, similar to the study of Chorpita and others (1996)
, expressions of parental anxiety in our study occurred in vivo, reducing the likelihood that a response bias impacted results.
In general, interaction effects indicated that the magnitude of the difference in child anxiety measures (state anxiety, anxious feelings, anxious cognitions) across conditions was greater for children who had interacted with fathers as opposed to mothers. Specifically, children who interacted with their fathers endorsed higher levels of anxiety in the anxious condition compared to children who interacted with their mothers. Further, although children who had interacted with their fathers vs. mothers endorsed higher levels of anxious symptoms in the anxious condition, they did not endorse higher levels of anxious cognitions in the anxious condition. Rather, the inverse was true: children who had interacted with their fathers reported less anxious cognitions in the non-anxious condition relative to children who had interacted with their mothers. Taken together, these data suggest that children may be more influenced by their fathers’ displays of feelings and cognitions in both positively and negatively-valenced situations.
In consideration of work that has found mothers to spend more time with children (Lamb, 2000
) and to more frequently serve as the primary caretaker in the family (Pleck, 1997
), the result that fathers may have a greater impact on child feelings and cognitions is somewhat counterintuitive. Because female adults may more readily self-disclose (Dindia & Allen, 1992
), and tend to display a higher affective intensity (Fujita, Diener, & Sandvik, 1991
) relative to male adults, it is possible that children had fewer opportunities to observe their fathers’ expressions of strong feelings and cognitions in daily life. Indeed, the tendency of mothers to more often hold the position of primary caretaker may further limit occasions for children to observe these behaviors in fathers. As a result, children may be more habituated to expressions (both positive and negative) of their mothers, thereby attenuating the impact of female parental modeling on children in the current study. From a clinical treatment perspective, it will be useful for future experimental research to determine whether frequent exposure and/or child successful toleration of parental negative affect moderates the impact of male and female parental anxious modeling on children.
Although the impact of parental modeling on child anxiety level and anxious cognitions differed by parent gender, it is important to note that these findings were not robust across indicators of child anxiety; there were no differences in levels of desired avoidance across conditions for children exposed to fathers in comparison to mothers. While it is possible that parent gender moderates the effect of parental modeling only on some aspects of child anxiety, our failure to observe a differential effect of male vs. female parental modeling on child desired avoidance may be an artifact of limitations inherent to our measure of avoidance. Additional experimental research that assesses child anxiety with a variety of instruments and methods is needed to determine whether the interactive effects of parental modeling of anxiety and parent gender are universal or specific to certain domains of child anxiety.
Several limitations of the current study warrant discussion. First, it is important to highlight that in addition to modeling anxious behaviors (e.g., pacing, rigid posture, twitching, shifting eye gaze, lip-biting), parents also modeled anxious cognitions (i.e., threat-related information about the task and perceived lack of child ability) during the experimental manipulation. Because the current study examined these mechanisms simultaneously, it was not possible to disaggregate the independent contribution of each to child anxiety level, anxious cognitions, or desired avoidance. For instance, it may be that only one of these mechanisms impacts child anxiety outcomes, that one mechanism has stronger effects relative to others, or that each mechanism has unique and specific effects on child anxiety level, anxious cognitions, and desired avoidance. However, given that anxious behaviors and cognitions are likely to occur in tandem, it was of interest to enhance the external validity of the manipulation by simulating how these phenomena operate in real life. In the future, experimental research that systematically manipulates these mechanisms both independently and conjointly will be useful in better understanding the relative contribution of each to child anxiety.
Second, although the current study provides support for the transmission of anxiety from parent to child via parental modeling, it does not discount that children may elicit anxious behaviors among parents (Hudson et al., 2009
; Mills & Rubin, 1998
; Whaley et al., 1999
; Moore et al., 2004
), nor does it counter more complex etiological models which implicate the bidirectional influence of parents and children in the development and maintenance of child anxiety (Hudson & Rapee, 2004
). Findings from the present study provide support for only one possible explanation in a condition that is almost certainly multiply determined.
Third, results of the present study should be considered in view of a number of study features. Because the C-FAT was developed for the current study and subscales consist of a small number of items, the scores generated from this measure are not without error. However, subscales displayed good to excellent internal consistency across conditions and results obtained with the C-FAT were very similar to those obtained using the STAIC, providing initial support for the reliability and validity of this measure. In addition, due to the small size of the current sample, testing the interactive effects of several child characteristics (i.e., anxious temperament, child gender) with both experimental condition and parent gender was prohibitive. In light of research that has found the impact of modeling to vary as a function of child characteristics (de Rosnay et al., 2006
) as well as the similarity of the model to the observer (Bandura, 1977
), it will be important for studies involving larger samples to examine the combined effect of these features on child anxiety. In particular, research that investigates whether the impact of parental modeling of anxiety on child anxiety varies as a function of parent gender, child gender and/or child anxiety status may prescribe gender-specific interventions with children who are clinically anxious or at risk for clinical levels of anxiety.
Finally, results of the current study may not generalize to other populations, such as families in which children have anxiety disorders, families from more diverse backgrounds, and children of different ages. It should be noted that the current study tested changes only in transitory, normative levels of anxiety and anxious cognitions rather than changes in stable, clinical levels of anxiety. While it is possible that repeated learning experiences involving parental anxious modeling yield chronically heightened levels of anxiety among children, the current study does not provide data to support this hypothesis. Yet, demonstrating the relative magnitude of its influence, exposure to parental modeling for only 2 to 3 minutes had large effects on levels of child anxiety, anxious cognitions, and desired avoidance, albeit transitory. Additional longitudinal research examining the relationship of parental modeling of anxiety and child anxiety over time will be useful in clarifying how such parental behaviors may contribute to the development of clinical levels of anxiety in children. As well, studies including both larger and more ethnically and developmentally heterogeneous samples will be useful in exploring the differential impact of male and female parental modeling on children across various ethnicities and at various periods of development.
Despite these limitations, the present study advances current understanding of the development of anxiety in children by providing preliminary support for parental modeling of anxiety as a posited mechanism of risk. This study is the first to examine the impact of parental modeling of anxiety on the feelings and cognitions of school-age children using an experimental paradigm. It is also the first to examine whether the effect of parental modeling of anxiety on children varies by parent gender. Results of this study indicate that parental modeling of anxiety has a powerful influence on several cognitive-behavioral indices of child anxiety, including anxious feelings, anxious cognitions, and desired avoidance. Although some interventions for child anxiety disorders consider and address parental modeling of anxiety in treatment (Ginsburg, 2009
), findings from this study suggest that this behavior among parents should more often be a focus of clinical attention. Additionally, though children who interacted with parents of either gender were influenced by parental modeling, findings of the current study specifically suggest that children may be more vulnerable to the anxious and non-anxious expressions of their fathers. Such results emphasize the importance of including both mothers and fathers in treatment for child anxiety in order to address potential risk with both family members.