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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