Background: Anxiety aggregates in families. Environmental factors, such as modelling of anxious behaviours, are assumed to play a causal role in the development of child anxiety. We investigated the predictive value of paternal and maternal anxiety (lifetime anxiety disorders and expressed parental anxiety) on infants’ fear and avoidance during encounters with social and nonsocial novel stimuli in a social referencing (SR) paradigm.
Methods: A total of 122 12-month-old infants participated in this study separately with their fathers and mothers (parents with lifetime: social anxiety disorders [n = 47], other types of anxiety disorders [n = 33], comorbid social and other types of anxiety disorders [n = 52] and without anxiety disorders [n = 112]). Infants were confronted with a stranger and a mechanical dinosaur as novel stimuli in two SR situations. Infants’ avoidance as well as fear and parents’ expressed anxiety were observed. Infants’ behavioural inhibition (BI) was separately observed in structured tasks.
Results: Parental lifetime anxiety disorders did not significantly predict infant fear or avoidance. Expressed parental anxiety interacted with BI to significantly predict infant avoidance, revealing a positive association between expressed parental anxiety and infant avoidance among infants with moderate-to-high BI. The association between infant avoidance and expressed parental anxiety was not significantly different for mothers and fathers, pointing to an equally important role of fathers at this young age. Infant fear was significantly predicted by infant BI, but not by expressed parental anxiety.
Conclusions: Infants with a temperamental disposition for anxiety (BI) may learn from both paternal and maternal anxious signals and become avoidant towards novelty when their parents express anxiety. This link between expressed parental anxiety and infant avoidance for moderate-to-high BI children, that seems to hold across contexts and to be independent of lifetime parental anxiety disorders, may be a mechanism explaining early intergenerational transmission of anxiety.