Maladaptive cognitions, particularly negative self-evaluations, are a hallmark feature of excessive anxiety in youth. For decades, researchers have sought to understand which and how parental factors influence the development of children’s maladaptive thoughts. Parental anxiety has been found to play a role in the development of children’s anxious cognitions, yet the mechanisms of transmission are unclear. Offspring of anxious parents may be biologically predisposed towards negative self-cognitions [1
] and more likely to exhibit cognitive biases than are children of nonanxious parents [3
]. Although biological and genetic factors may play a role, it is likely that there are multiple mechanisms by which parents may influence children’s cognitive biases.
Children’s maladaptive cognitions may be shaped by parenting behaviors such as anxious behavior and overcontrol. Anxious behavior such as verbal threat transmission (i.e., expression of threat, uncertainty about ability to cope or likelihood of successful outcome; [4
]) and parental modeling (i.e., demonstration of anxiety or avoidance in response to anxiety-provoking situations; [5
]) may shape children’s perceptions that benign or ambiguous situations are threatening and that successful outcomes are unlikely, thereby reducing self-efficacy beliefs [7
]. Parents may also engage in overcontrolling parenting behaviors that are intended to protect their children from anxiety-provoking situations and distress. However, rather than decreasing distress, overcontrol may increase children’s perceptions of external locus of control [12
]. Children’s negative self-evaluations may develop as a result of restriction of opportunities for mastery and control over their own environment.
Theory suggests that children’s self-evaluations are shaped also by the perceptions others hold of them [16
] and research supports the hypothesis that the expectations of significant others influence children’s self-cognitions [e.g., 18
]. Specifically, negative parental cognitions about their children (e.g., lower expectations for success) are associated with higher levels of child negative self-cognitions and poorer expectations for coping [e.g., 8
]. Several studies have demonstrated that parents may convey their own negative cognitions to their children through family discussions, thereby potentially enhancing children’s threat biases and negative perceptions of their ability to cope with anxiety-provoking situations [e.g., 24
], although other studies have not demonstrated this effect [e.g., 26
Although our understanding of the association between parental factors and child cognitions is growing, there exist certain limitations in the literature. First, the majority of samples were selected either on parental or child anxiety but most researchers have not controlled for anxiety in the other person, thereby introducing a potential confound into the association between parenting factors and children’s cognitive biases. Second, few studies have examined the association between specific parental behaviors in relation to child self-evaluations or cognitions. Third, much of the research regarding the association between maternal factors and children’s cognitions involves ambiguous situation paradigms. These studies examine cognitive biases regarding the interpretation of ambiguous stimuli but provide no information regarding how mothers respond in vivo to stressful situations and how their responses shape their children’s self-evaluations.
Finally, with few exceptions [e.g., 13
], the relative influence of parental anxiety, cognitions, and behaviors on children’s cognitions, particularly self-evaluations, has not been examined. A previous study with the current sample examined mechanisms of transmission between parental and child anxiety (not specifically self-evaluations) [13
]. Results using questionnaire data indicated that the influence of maternal behavior was independent of the influence of maternal anxiety and may be stronger than the influence of certain maternal cognitions (i.e., external locus of control), suggesting that examining the relative importance of parental factors is worthwhile as it may identify the most robust parental risk factor [13
The present study addressed these limitations and included two aims. The primary aim was to examine the associations between maternal factors (i.e., task anxiety, behaviors, and expectations for children’s outcomes) and children’s self-evaluations of distress, coping, and performance within the context of an anxiety-provoking performance evaluation task (i.e., child preparing and delivering a speech). The secondary aim was to examine the relative influence of each maternal factor on children’s self-evaluations.
We selected a speech paradigm similar to that used in two previous studies [i.e., 22
] that was expected to elicit sufficient levels of anxiety. Use of a stressful performance evaluation task was unique and necessary to examine the overarching questions of how do anxious mothers respond in actual stressful situations and how do their responses in these situations relate to children’s perceptions of their own distress, coping, and performance?
We assessed maternal and child variables using multiple informants that included self-report and behaviors coded by an independent evaluator. Because child anxiety is believed to affect children’s cognitions as well as parental variables [e.g., 27
] and has not been accounted for in previous studies, levels of child anxiety were controlled. We measured maternal and child task anxiety rather than global anxiety symptoms so that we could better understand the real
associations among maternal factors and child self-evaluations related to a stressful situation. Based on the extant literature, we hypothesized that maternal task anxiety, behaviors (i.e., overcontrol and anxious behavior), and negative expectations (i.e., low expectations for child success) would each be related to children’s negative self-evaluations following the speech. Based on our previous study [i.e., 13
] we also predicted that, of the maternal factors, parental behaviors would have the strongest relation with child self-evaluations following the speech.