Anxiety is one of the most pervasive psychiatric problems experienced by children [1
]. Thus, research on the etiology of these problems is paramount. One factor found to contribute to child anxiety problems is specific parenting behaviors [2
]. Indeed, parenting has become a central focus of research due to the increased probability of familial transmission of anxiety disorders [5
] as well as empirical research examining the parents of anxious youths (see [7
] for reviews). One particular parenting behavior, parental control, has received the most attention (and empirical evidence) and has been shown to be associated with higher levels of anxiety in children [2
Parental overcontrol refers to an excessive amount of involvement in a child's activities, daily routines, or emotional experiences and an encouragement of dependence on the parents [12
]. The common assumption is that parental overcontrol is a result of increased parental anxiety; however, research in this area is inconsistent [15
]. Indeed, studies have shown that anxious and nonanxious parents do not always differ in their use of overcontrol [16
]. In contrast, parents of anxious, compared to nonanxious youth, have been consistently found to use a greater degree of overcontrol [8
], suggesting that regardless of parental anxiety status, the use of parental overcontrol appears related to higher levels of anxiety in children.
Despite the ambiguity in the relation between parental anxiety and parental overcontrol, it has been posited that overcontrolling behaviors restrict a child's access to his/her environment and also communicate to a child that there is an excessive amount of threat that the child will not be able to cope with or master on his/her own. Thus, it is hypothesized that this parenting behavior reduces the opportunity for the child to develop competence, or mastery over things in their environment, particularly, novel or threatening situations [20
]. Theoretically, it is this decrease in child self-competence which leads to an increased level of anxiety in the child. Conversely, granting of a child's autonomy is thought to encourage a child's independence, thereby allowing him/her to gain a sense of mastery of his/her environment and reducing his/her level of anxiety [9
There is a growing body of empirical support for the theory that lowered child self-perceived competence is related to higher levels of child anxiety. In a recent longitudinal study [22
] a community sample of 185 adolescents were followed from age 13 to age 18 to evaluate prospective predictors of social anxiety and fears of negative evaluation. As expected, structural equation modeling analyses found that a lack of perceived social acceptance (or competence) predicted subsequent explicit social anxiety (i.e., those responses which are subject to conscious control and measured by self-report), even after accounting for pre-existing social withdrawal symptoms [22
]. This finding was supported in a cross sectional study, which found that low levels of perceived competence, in adolescents 10–14 years old, were associated with current symptoms of both child anxiety and depression (N
= 214) [23
]. Furthermore, adolescents' self-perceptions about competency were more consistent predictors of symptoms of anxiety than beliefs about control and contingency.
Data using clinical samples have found similar results. In a study of 47 children with anxiety disorders versus 31 non-anxious controls, researchers found that anxious children, compared to their nonanxious peers, reported significantly lower self-competence than controls [24
]. Ekornås et al. [25
], in a study of 329 children aged 8–11 years also found that children with anxiety disorders, compared to their nondisordered peers, perceived themselves as being less accepted by peers and less competent in physical activities.
There has been inquiry into the effect of parenting behaviors on child and adolescent competency; however, these studies tended to use the general, nonspecific variable of parenting style, rather than specific parenting behaviors and were not specifically focused on anxiety. For instance, in a study of 108 adolescents, high levels of maternal rigid control were related to decreased adolescent social competence and self-worth [26
]. Similar findings have been reported in other studies [12
Taken together, while maternal overcontrol has been associated with higher child anxiety and lower child self-perceived competence has been found to predict higher child anxiety, the extent to which lowered perceptions of competence in children mediate the relation between maternal overcontrol and child anxiety, as hypothesized in developmental models of child anxiety, has not been tested. The current study sought to empirically investigate this model (see ). In addition, because some studies have found over-control to be related to subtypes of anxiety [28
], we examined both overall levels of anxiety as well as specific domains of anxiety linked to DSM-IV anxiety disorders. It is important to note that though the arrows point in a singular direction in this model, the correlational nature of this research means that claims about causation or directionality cannot be made and reciprocal and bidirectional effects may occur (e.g. child anxiety level affects maternal control and children's self-perceived competence). Based on extant theory and literature, it was hypothesized that maternal overcontrol and childhood anxiety levels would be mediated by the child's self-perceived competence, after controlling for maternal anxiety.
Fig. 1 Empirical model of the mediating role of self-perceived competence in the relationship between maternal overcontrol and child anxiety total score, generalized, and social, controlling for maternal anxiety, with appropriate standardized Betas. Note (a) (more ...)