Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

BAT: Breaking the Transmission of Anxiety in the Family

Parents may pass anxiety onto their offspring by exposing them to anxious behaviors in novel situations. Just as the parents’ anxious signals lead to anxiety, parents’ confident signals can ward off anxiety in the offspring. This project is seeking a new way to break anxiety transmission in the family by investigating the following question: Can confident responses from one parent prevent or decrease anxiety transmission from the other parent?

Evin Aktar

Anxiety runs in families

Parents may genetically transmit anxious temperaments, but also pass anxiety on to their offspring by exposing them to anxious behaviors, so called social fear transmission. Earlier research has shown that exposure to fathers’ or mothers’ anxious reactions contribute to anxiety transmission. This project explores social fear transmission dynamics with both parents to understand how anxious and/or confident behaviors from the mother and the father jointly shape child anxiety.

New Horizons

Latest evidence reveals that social fear transmission can be prevented or reduced if children are first exposed to confident reactions, before anxious reactions. This raises the fundamental question about the family dynamics of social fear transmission: Can confident responses from one parent prevent or decrease anxiety transmission from the other parent? The project will provide insight on how to strategically regulate the offspring’s exposure to differing levels of anxiety or confidence in mothers and fathers to reduce fear transmission in the family by focusing on fear of strangers.

Two Pathways to Fear Transmission

The project addresses the two main pathways to social fear transmission by investigating the effect of exposure to parents’ verbal and non-verbal expressions. Earlier evidence suggests that parents’ non-verbal anxiety signals may induce fear and avoidance as early as in infancy, whereas verbal anxiety signals become more influential once children acquire language. The project incorporates two studies, which investigate the effect of parental non-verbal  expressions of anxiety and confidence in infancy, and of verbal expressions in early childhood years.

Multi-level Investigation of Child Reactions

This project adopts a multi-level approach to investigate the effect of parental anxious and confident responses on child reactions. Using the latest research technology, the study incorporates physiological, cognitive, and behavioral measurements of child reactions. This will allow us to understand the complex nature of child anxious reactions.

Individual Differences and the role of Child Temperament

Not all children are equally sensitive to the exposure to parents’ anxious or confident reactions in novel situations. Earlier theory and evidence suggest that children with a fearful temperament may be especially susceptible to parental input. The project incorporates observations and parental-reports of child temperament to unravel the individual differences in social fear learning.

For the first study of the BAT project, we are currently looking for baby scientists between 10-to-14 months old-infants and their parents. Interested in participating? See https://www.bravebabies.net/

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