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How Parents’ Anxiety Levels And Behaviors Affect Their Child’s Anxiety

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A study involving 98 pairs of mothers and infants (the infants were aged from 12 months to 14 months) was carried out to investigate how the level of the mother’s stress affected the level of the infant’s stress (as measured by the reactivity of their respective nervous systems).

METHOD :

The mothers were separated from their infants before being assigned to one of two groups. The two groups were as follows :

GROUP ONE : The RELAXATION group in which the mothers were helped to relax to increase parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) reactivity (the PNS helps us to be calm and relaxed by, for example, reducing heart rate and blood pressure).

GROUP TWO : The SRESS group in which mothers were required to undertake a stress-inducing task to increase sympathetic nervous system (SNS) reactivity which induces in us the ‘fight or flight’ state by, for example, increasing heart rate and breathing rate.

Afterwards, the mothers from both of the above groups were reunited with their infants in one of two ways :

!) Half the mothers from each group had their infant returned to their laps. The researchers referred to this as the ‘TOUCH CONDITION.’

and

2) Half the mothers from each group had their infant returned to a high chair next to them. The researchers referred to this as the ‘NON-TOUCH CONDITION.’

Following this, acitivity in the infants’ SNS and PNS was measured and compared to their baseline levels.

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RESULTS :

!) INFANTS RETURNED TO STRESSED MOTHERS :

Infants returned to the STRESSED mothers showed significantly increased SNS activity compared to infants returned to RELAXED mothers and this effect was greater in the infants returned to their mother’s laps (THE ‘TOUCH’ CONDITION) than in the infants returned to a high chair next to their mother (THE ‘NON-TOUCH’ CONDITION).

2) INFANTS RETURNED TO RELAXED MOTHERS :

Infants returned to the RELAXED mothers showed significantly increased ANS activity compared to infants returned to STRESSED mothers and this effect was greater in the infants returned to their mother’s laps (THE ‘TOUCH’ CONDITION) than in the infants returned to a high chair next to their mother (THE ‘NON-TOUCH’ CONDITION).

CONCLUSION :

The researchers inferred from these findings that :

  • feelings of stress can be transmitted from mothers to their infants, particularly through touch.
  • feelings of calm and relaxation can be transmitted from mothers to their infants, particularly through touch.

These findings confirm what most mothers know instinctively.

How Parents Can Help Their Children Manage Their Anxiety ;

Research carried out at the University Of Lisbon (2017) conducted an interview based study that involved parents being asked to describe what strategies they employ to help their children reduce their feelings of anxiety.

The information collected from the study allowed the researchers to identify seven strategies that were UNHELPFUL (and that could potentially intensify the child’s feelings of anxiety) and, also, three strategies that were HELPFUL (and that were likely to ameliorate the child’s feelings of anxiety). I outline all ten of these strategies (the seven ‘unhelpful’ and the three ‘helpful’) below :

UNHELPFUL STRATEGIES ;

  • Reinforcing depenedence or avoidance.
  • Over-involvement (including being over-protective and being excessively controlling).
  • Negativity (e.g. blaming, criticizing or punishing the child)
  • Helplessness
  • Anxiety
  • Unrealistic Reassurance
  • Passivity (e.g. unresponsiveness to the child’s anxiety)

HELPFUL STRATEGIES :

  • Helping the child to problem solve (e.g. developing plans to deal with the cause of anxiety or to cope with the anxiety
  • Encouraging the child to be brave
  • Providing the child with emotional support

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

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About David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE)

Psychologist, researcher and educationalist.

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