Anxious Moms Could Hamper Treatment for Anxious Children

Childhood anxiety can be especially troublesome for children, family members, and the clinicians trying to help them. High levels of anxiety can impair a child’s ability to develop healthy peer relationships and can affect academic achievement. One factor that can influence a child’s anxiety is the anxiety of his or her parents. Mothers in particular have a significant impact on their children, physically and psychologically. When a mother is anxious, her child may become anxious merely by seeing physical behaviors that the mother exhibits. Although existing research has demonstrated this effect, there has been little evidence demonstrating this dynamic in the context of treatment outcome.

In an effort to determine how maternal anxiety affects treatment outcome, Cathy Creswell of the Winnicott Research Unit and the University of Reading in England recently led a study looking at sets of 88 anxious children and their mothers, half of whom had anxiety (ANX) and half of whom did not (NONANX). The children ranged in age from 7 to 12, and were instructed to complete a challenging task while their mothers observed. Creswell discovered that the ANX mothers more accurately predicted their child’s performance than NONANX mothers.

The ANX mothers also felt as if they would be able to control their children’s performance more than NONANX mothers did, but this could be due to the high level of obligation often felt by individuals with anxiety. However, after watching their children struggle, the NONANX mothers reported higher levels of control than the ANX mothers. Creswell also found that the ANX mothers exhibited more anxiety and negativity, and intruded more on the task process than NONANX mothers, especially when their children showed signs of increasing anxiety. The increase and fear, negativity, and anxiety that mothers expressed could give clues into how they might react when their children are exposed to fear stimuli, specifically, the stimuli used in cognitive behavioral therapies. “This may interfere with the maintenance of a positive, supportive mother-child interaction under conditions of stress and, as such, this may impede optimum treatment outcomes,” Creswell said.

Creswell, C., Apetroaia, A., Murray, L., Cooper, P. (2012). Cognitive, affective, and behavioral characteristics of mothers with anxiety disorders in the context of child anxiety disorder. Journal of Abnormal Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0029516

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  • Gwen


    September 7th, 2012 at 3:55 AM

    These are kids who are going to feed off of the anxiety of others and this is clearly a case where the mom is heavily influencing the behavior of the children.
    They model just about everything that we do, so it goes without saying that they would probably model this kind of anxious behavior too.

  • rosie


    September 7th, 2012 at 5:07 AM

    anxiety comes in the way of anything one is trying to accomplish and parenting is not would definitely be affected by the level of anxiety the parent I think this is just another reason why adults should try and work on their anxious behavior.

  • Astro-Not


    September 7th, 2012 at 1:41 PM

    Kids follow their parents and an anxious mom not only ‘teaches’ it to the kids but also brings about this feeling of anxiety all the time.I experienced that quite a bit in my childhood because my mother is an anxious person and just that feeling of your heart pounding when youre anxious is horrible.I have gotten over it with some practice but I think I was fairly deep into it in my younger years.

  • Leila


    September 7th, 2012 at 2:38 PM

    So they can more accurately predict the behavior, but also feel that they can control it?

    maybe subconsciously they can predict it because they know that whatever they act like the child will more than likely mirror that?

    And they think they can control the outcome based on their own behavior?

    So they may claim not to know what causes all of this but I bet if you whittle it down to the bare bones, they have a better idea than any of us just how much control they wield.

  • BethAnn


    September 8th, 2012 at 10:43 AM

    I have always been so strongly aware that my actions have a whole lot of impact on how my kids behave and react in almost any given situation. I have known that from the evry first time that they did something to hurt themselves- the more I reacted, the more they cried. The more I play it off, the quicker they are to shake it off and keep on going. That’s just the way it is, our kids take their cues on haow to react based on how we do the same. So what’s the example that you want to set for your kids? One of anxiety and stress or one of grace under pressure? I choose the latter.

  • clyde g

    clyde g

    September 9th, 2012 at 5:22 AM

    would be nice if more moms and dads would have the ability to recognize how their own silly worries influence their child’s behavior
    unfortunately the ones who are more likely to need to read this will just skim on through saying that this isn’t for them, and they will continue to ignore

  • Lydia Frady

    Lydia Frady

    September 10th, 2012 at 10:58 AM

    Like most other issues, this one is so cyclical.
    I would be willing to bet that if you looked back on the mothers childhoods you would also find a parent who exhibited the very same issues that there child and grandchild now display.
    We all pretty much learn how we are going to recat y growing up and watching how those around us handle these every day situations and how they react to stress.
    But I think that this article alone has to serve as a strong warning about how we are setting our own children up for this same kind of stress if we allow this to overwhelm us all of the time.

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