The quality of parent-infant relationships can predict social anxiety in adolescence, according to a new study.
Infants who are not securely attached to their parents often grow up to be inhibited children who develop anxiety problems, especially social anxiety, as they get older, according to researchers at the University of Maryland, National Institute of Mental Health, and the University of Waterloo.
Social anxiety disorder is one of the most common psychiatric disorders among children and adolescents, with rates of about 5.5 percent among 13- to 18-year-olds, according to the study, which was published in Child Development, the journal of the Society for Research in Child Development.
For the study, researchers studied 165 European-American, middle- to upper-middle-class children, who were recruited at four months old.
At 14 months, the infants and their parents were observed in the lab to see how the babies responded to brief separations from their parents. Infants were classified as having a secure or insecure attachment to their parent based on this observation, the researchers explained.
Securely attached infants initiated contact with their parents after the separation and, if they had been upset, they could calm down when their parents returned.
Insecurely attached infants showed one of two patterns: Either they ignored or avoided contact with their parents after being separated, or they wanted to be physically close to their parents but were angry and unable to calm down when their parents returned, the researchers discovered.
The children’s behavioral inhibition and social reticence was observed in the lab as they encountered new situations and new peers several times across early childhood at 14, 24, 48, and 84 months.
Parents also completed questionnaires about their children’s behavior in new situations and with unfamiliar peers.
Based on the lab observations and results from parents’ questionnaires, the researchers classified children according to how inhibited or shy they were over time.
Years later, when the children were 14 to 17 years old, the teens and their parents completed questionnaires about the adolescents’ anxiety.
The kids who said that they often felt nervous going to parties, dances, or other places where there would be people they didn’t know well, and often felt nervous when they had to do something in front of an audience like read, speak, or play a game or sport, scored higher on social anxiety than those who said they had such feelings less frequently.
The study found that children who were both insecurely attached to their parents as infants and who were inhibited throughout their childhoods went on to have higher levels of anxiety as adolescents, specifically social anxiety.
The boys who were insecurely attached to their parents as infants and who were inhibited across early childhood were at the most risk for social anxiety, according to the study’s findings.
In addition, the association between childhood inhibition and adolescent social anxiety was strongest for children who reacted angrily and weren’t able to calm down when reunited with their parents, compared to children who showed other types of attachment patterns as infants, according to the researchers.
“Our study suggests that it is the combination of both early risk factors that predicts anxiety in adolescence, particularly social anxiety,” said Erin Lewis-Morrarty, Ph.D., a research associate at the University of Maryland.
“The findings can inform the prevention and treatment of adolescent social anxiety by identifying specific factors that increase risk for this outcome among children who are persistently shy.”