Children in close friendships exhibit shared patterns of fear-related thoughts and tend to influence each other’s fears when discussing these issues together, according to a new study led by the University of East Anglia (UEA). But the results aren’t always bad. In fact, very often, children are able discuss and resolve their fears in a positive way.
The findings are published in the journal Behaviour Research and Therapy.
Although many children experience fearful thoughts, most of these diminish over time. Some children, however, go on to develop significant fears that can interfere with their daily lives. Specific phobias are the most common form of childhood anxiety and if left untreated they can continue into adulthood.
While a child’s genetic inheritance plays a strong role in the development of anxiety, there is also considerable evidence that children’s fears are affected by direct learning and the information they are given from others, such as their parents.
The findings suggest that the transference of fearful thoughts — as well as ideas about how to behave in fear-provoking situations — might also occur in other relationships, such as close friendships.
Lead author Dr. Jinnie Ooi, who conducted the research as part of her Ph.D. at UEA’s School of Psychology, said the findings could have practical implications for professionals working with children, particularly those being treated for anxiety disorders.
“Our findings indicate that close friends may share negative thoughts and to some extent may maintain these thoughts,” said Ooi. “Hopefully with this knowledge, we may be able to design interventions whereby close friends can help change their friends’ thoughts during therapy.
“It may also be beneficial to ask children being treated for anxiety disorders to identify whether they have friends who may be influencing or maintaining their negative thoughts, and it may subsequently be useful for them to be given strategies for how to discuss these thoughts with peers in an adaptive way.”
Importantly, the study found that children’s fear-related thoughts do not necessarily become more negative when kids discuss their fears with close friends who are more anxious. The researchers say this supports the use of group therapy and may be useful information for parents concerned that exposure to more anxious children within group-based therapy could increase anxiety.
Furthermore, school-based interventions aimed at reducing anxiety in primary school-aged children could teach pairs of close friends to discuss and resolve their worries in a positive manner with one another.
The study involved 242 British school children (106 boys, 136 girls), aged seven to 10 years old. Each child completed a questionnaire designed to measure anxiety and fear beliefs. They were then shown pictures of two Australian marsupials — the cuscus and the quoll — that would be unfamiliar to them.
The children were given two versions of the animals’ behavior — one neutral and one which described the animals as threatening — after which their fear responses toward each animal were assessed. Next, pairs of close friends (40 pairs of boys, 55 pairs of girls, and 26 boy-girl pairs) discussed their feelings about the animals, and their fear responses were measured again.
The study also investigated whether the children’s avoidance behaviors were impacted by the discussion. They were given a map showing a pathway, with the opening of an enclosure on one end and one of the animals at the other end. The children were asked to draw an X on the path to show where they would like to be in the enclosure, with avoidance behavior measured as the distance from the X to the animal.
After completing all the tasks, the children were presented with real information about the cuscus and the quoll and shown a short video about each of them.
The findings reveal that the children influenced each other’s thoughts after the discussion. Their fear responses became progressively more similar as the discussion continued, and close friends’ fear responses significantly predicted children’s fear responses in the discussion task.
Gender appeared to impact children’s fear responses over time. Children in boy-boy pairs showed a significant increase in fear responses following the discussion — their fear levels became more in line with that of other gender pairs for that task. On the other hand, girls in girl-girl pairs showed a significant decrease in their fear beliefs, at least when threatening information was given.
Source: University of East Anglia