Having a strong infant/parent bond is vital in preventing shy babies, and particularly males, from turning into anxious teenagers, according to a new study at the University of Waterloo.
Researchers have long been aware that toddlers who react with behavioral inhibition or shyness to new situations are at greater risk for internalizing problems as they get older.
“But with this study,” said co-author Heather Henderson, Ph.D., “we now understand that infants and young children with an inhibited temperament who also have insecure early attachment relationships are most likely to become socially anxious teens — especially boys.”
This is the first long-term empirical study to look at the combined influence of attachment and behavioral inhibition as predictors of teen anxiety. The researchers found that behavioral inhibition was linked to higher anxiety when toddlers, and especially boys, also had an insecure parent/child bond.
The researchers say further research is needed to understand how a child’s gender influences development of anxiety.
“The most important message from this study is that competent, responsive parents who form a secure relationship with their young children, can be an extremely important protective factor in their child’s development,” said Henderson.
The study involved 165 teens, ages 14 to 17, from middle-to-upper class European-American families who had been periodically evaluated throughout early childhood beginning at four months old. Then later, as teens, they had completed a number of anxiety assessments.
Researchers used the Strange Situation Paradigm — a series of separation and reunion episodes with their mothers — to measure toddlers’ attachment styles. The child’s behavior, especially during reunion episodes, was observed and coded in order to label attachment style.
Children who quickly approached the parent, were easily soothed and were willing to return to exploring the room were considered secure. Those who avoided contact, however, or showed anger and distress, or other types of atypical response upon the parent’s return, were classified as insecure.
Behavioral inhibition was periodically assessed during early and middle childhood using laboratory observations and reports from the children’s mothers.
Assessments focused on the toddler and then the young child’s reaction to unfamiliar objects, people, or situations. If they repeatedly responded with fear or social withdrawal, they were labeled as behaviorally inhibited.
“Anxiety disorders are among the most common psychiatric problems seen in children and adolescents,” said Henderson. “We can use this information about early influences to help change the developmental pathways of at-risk children before clinically-significant problems emerge.”
The study is published in the journal Child Development.
Source: University of Waterloo