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Behav Res Ther. 2009 Feb;47(2):170-4. doi: 10.1016/j.brat.2008.11.005. Epub 2008 Nov 28.

Do anxious parents interpretive biases towards threat extend into their child's environment?

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  • 1Department of Psychology, University of Sussex, Falmer, Brighton, East Sussex BN1 9QH, UK.


Anxiety disorders are known to run in families [Turner, S. M., Beidel, D. C., & Costello, A. (1987). Psychopathology in the offspring of anxiety disorder patients. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 55(2), 229-235] and environmental factors may largely account for the concordance between parental and child anxieties. Cognitive psychology models emphasise the importance of interpretive biases towards threat in the maintenance of anxiety and it is well established that anxious adults and children display similar interpretive biases and that these biases in anxious parents and their children are correlated. This raises the question of whether anxious cognitions/cognitive style may be transmitted from parent to child. We propose that this is more likely if anxious parents demonstrate interpretive biases not only about potential threats in their own environment but also about potential threats in their child's environment. Forty parents completed a recognition memory measure of interpretation bias adapted from Eysenck, Mogg, May, Richards, and Mathews (1991) [Bias in interpretation of ambiguous sentences related to threat in anxiety. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 100(2), 144-150] to measure biases in response to potentially threat provoking situations involving themselves and their child. The interpretive biases demonstrated by parents were similar across situations involving themselves and their children. As expected, parental interpretive biases were further modified by anxiety with higher levels of parental anxiety associated with more negative interpretive biases about situations in their own and their child's environment, although this association was significantly stronger for potentially threat provoking situations in their own environment. These results are consistent with parent's interpretive biases extending beyond their own environment into their child's environment, although future research should continue to consider the mechanisms by which anxious parents may transmit fear cognitions to their children.

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