“Parents who are overprotective and constantly monitoring their child’s progress, known as helicopter parenting, could be making children more anxious as they get older, according to an Australian study.
The finding comes from a study of 200 children by researchers from Sydney’s Macquarie University.
The children were initially assessed when they were pre-school age (three or four years old) and again five years later.
The children were asked to complete a series of puzzles and speech tasks, and mothers were asked to help only if their child needed it. Their subsequent interactions were observed to determine how much parents helped by giving answers or directing their child’s activities.
Mothers were also asked to report on their own and their child’s behaviour, and to respond to statements such as ‘I determine who my child will play with’ and ‘I dress my child even if he/she can do it alone’.
“The most interesting finding was the strongest predictor of anxiety at age nine was the child’s anxiety levels at age four,” says study leader Professor Jennifer Hudson of the university’s Centre for Emotional Health.
“We found that children who show signs of anxiety and who are inhibited (such as being unwilling to talk or reluctant to explore new situations) as preschoolers are more likely to have mothers who help too much.”
“Our overall findings also show that preschool children are more likely to have a clinical anxiety diagnosis in middle childhood when mothers were over-involved or too protective,” she adds.
Children whose mothers showed signs of anxiety and depressive disorders were also found to be at higher risk of becoming anxious in later childhood.
Previous research suggests that anxiety has both a genetic component and a learned component, although it may also be influenced by stressful life events such as bullying, conflict at home or a family member’s protracted illness.
“A parent can guide their child’s responses to situations by modelling courageous behaviour,” says Hudson. For example, the first time a child encounters a dog, if the mother is scared she transmits this information to the child.
Hudson says the study is not intended to make anxious parents even more concerned; rather it is intended to identify risk factors for children developing anxiety issues and provide a step-wise approach to managing their fears.
“It is perfectly natural that adults want to help children that are shy, distressed or nervous,” she says. “Other studies of older children have shown that when parents of confident kids are asked to swap places with parents of children with anxiety, and perform tasks, the ‘confident’ parents gave anxious children more help than to their own children.”
“There is potentially something in a child’s behaviour that brings out the protective instincts in parents.”
Contrary to many parents’ beliefs that anxiety is something their pre-schoolers will grow out of, the researchers say that without intervention it is likely to persist as they get older, which can negatively impact their quality of life.
Hudson says the factors identified in the study can be used to target affected children for early intervention programs. These programs work with both parent and child to identify the source of their anxiety and gradually confront their fears.
“Now that we know which factors are likely to increase a child’s chances of developing anxiety, we can intervene more effectively by targeting those variables that can reduce a child’s risk.”
The researchers plan to measure the children’s progress again when they are 12 years old.”
Monday, 20 August 2012 Rachel Sullivan ABC
The study appears online in the journal PLOS One.