Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology

, Volume 36, Issue 4, pp 499–512 | Cite as

Maternal Modeling and the Acquisition of Fear and Avoidance in Toddlers: Influence of Stimulus Preparedness and Child Temperament

  • Kathrin Dubi
  • Ronald M. Rapee
  • Jane L. Emerton
  • Carolyn A. Schniering


The aim of the present study was to investigate the influence of maternal modeling on the acquisition of fear and avoidance towards fear-relevant and fear-irrelevant, novel stimuli in a sample of 71 toddlers. Children were shown a rubber snake or spider (fear-relevant objects) and a rubber mushroom or flower (fear-irrelevant objects), which were alternately paired with either negative or positive expression by their mothers. Both stimuli were presented again after a 1- and a 10-min delay, while mothers maintained a neutral expression. The toddlers showed increased fear and avoidance of the objects following negative reaction from their mothers than following positive maternal expression. This was similarly true for both fear-relevant and fear-irrelevant stimuli. In addition, no association was found between child temperament and behavioral responses and a weak association emerged between child temperament and emotional responses. The results demonstrate that young children can rapidly form conditioned emotional and behavioral responses via maternal reactions regardless of stimulus preparedness or child temperament. It is suggested that early maternal modeling may be relevant to a broad spectrum of fearful reactions.


Fear Maternal modeling Toddlers Stimulus preparedness Temperament 



The research was supported by an overseas postgraduate research scholarship to Kathrin Dubi from the Swiss National Science Foundation and by grants of the Freiwillige Akademische Gesellschaft and the Theodor Engelmann Foundation.


  1. Andrews, G., Hall, W., Teesson, M., & Henderson, S. (1999). The mental health of Australians. Canberra, Australia: Commonwealth Department of Health and Aged Care.Google Scholar
  2. Antony, M. M., Bieling, P. J., Cox, B. J., Enns, M. W., & Swinson, R. P. (1998). Psychometric properties of the 42-item and 21-item versions of the Depression Anxiety Stress Scales (DASS) in clinical groups and a community sample. Psychological Assessment, 10, 176–181.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Askew, C., & Field, A. P. (2007). Vicarious learning and the development of fears in childhood. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 45, 2616–2627.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Baldwin, D. A., & Moses, L. J. (1994). Early understanding of referential intent and attentional focus: Evidence from language and emotion. In C. Lewis, & P. Mitchell (Eds.), Children’s early understanding of mind (pp. 133–156). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  5. Bandura, A., Blanchard, E. B., & Ritter, B. (1969). Relative efficacy of desensitization and modeling approaches for inducing behavioral, affective, and attitudinal changes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 13, 173–199.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bandura, A., Grusec, J. E., & Menlove, F. L. (1967). Vicarious extinction of avoidance behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 5, 16–23.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Bandura, A., & Rosenthal, T. L. (1966). Vicarious classical conditioning as a function of arousal level. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 3, 54–62.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Belsky, J., & Park, S. Y. (2000). Exploring reciprocal parent and child effects in the case of child inhibition in US and Korean samples. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 24, 338–347.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Bernstein, G. A., Borchardt, C. M., & Perwien, A. R. (1996). Symptoms of anxiety disorders in normal children. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 29, 759–765.Google Scholar
  10. Bishop, G., Spence, S. H., & McDonald, C. (2003). Can parents and teachers provide a reliable and valid report of behavioral inhibition. Child Development, 74, 1899–1917.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Blackford, J. U., & Walden, T. A. (1998). Individual differences in social referencing. Infant Behavior and Development, 21, 89–102.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Bloom, L. (1998). Language acquisition in its developmental context. In D. Kuhn, & R. S. Siegler (Eds.), Handbook of child psychology, Vol. 2 (Cognition, perception, and language. (5th ed.) pp. 309–370. New York: Wiley.Google Scholar
  13. Brown, T. A., Chorpita, B. F., Korotitsch, W., & Barlow, D. H. (1997). Psychometric properties of the Depression Anxiety Stress Scales (DASS) in clinical samples. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 35, 79–89.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Capps, L., Sigman, M., Sena, R., Henker, B., & Whalen, C. (1996). Fear, anxiety and perceived control in children of agoraphobic parents. Journal of Child Psychology, Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines, 37, 445–452.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Cicchetti, D. V., & Sparrow, S. S. (1981). Developing criteria for establishing the interrater reliability of specific items in a given inventory. American Journal of Mental Deficiency, 86, 127–137.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  16. Cook, E. W., Hodes, R. L., & Lang, P. J. (1986). Preparedness and phobia: Effect of stimulus content on human visceral conditioning. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 95, 195–207.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Cook, M., & Mineka, S. (1989). Observational conditioning of fear to fear-relevant versus fear-irrelevant stimuli in rhesus monkeys. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 98, 448–459.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Cook, M., & Mineka, S. (1990). Selective associations in the observational conditioning of fear in rhesus monkeys. Journal of Experimental Psychology, Animal Behavior Processes, 16, 372–389.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. De Jong, P. J., Andrea, H., & Muris, P. (1997). Spider phobia in children: Disgust and fear before and after treatment. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 35, 559–562.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. De Rosnay, M., Cooper, P. J., Tsigaras, N., & Murray, L. (2006). Transmission of social anxiety from mother to infant: An experimental study using a social referencing paradigm. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 44, 1165–1175.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Dimberg, U. (1986). Facial reactions to fear-relevant and fear-irrelevant stimuli. Biological Psychology, 23, 153–161.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Egliston, K.-A., & Rapee, R. M. (2007). Inhibition of fear acquisition in toddlers following positive modelling by their mothers. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 45, 1871–1882.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Ehlers, A. (1993). Somatic symptoms and panic attacks: A retrospective study of learning experiences. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 31, 269–278.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Fenson, L., Dale, P. S., Reznick, J. S., Bates, E., Thal, D. J., & Pethick, S. J. (1994). Variability in early communicative development. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 59 (Serial No. 242).Google Scholar
  25. Fergusson, D. M., Horwood, L. J., & Lynskey, M. T. (1993). Prevalence and comorbidity of DSM-III diagnoses in a birth cohort of 15 year olds. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 32, 1127–1134.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Field, A. P. (2006). The behavioral inhibition system and the verbal information pathway to children’s fears. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 35, 337–345.Google Scholar
  27. Field, A. P., Argyris, N. G., & Knowles, K. A. (2001). Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf: A prospective paradigm to test Rachman’s indirect pathways in children. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 39, 1259–1276.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Field, A. P., Hamilton, S. J., Knowles, K. A., & Plews, E. L. (2003). Fear information and social phobic beliefs in children: A prospective paradigm and preliminary results. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 41, 113–123.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Field, A. P., & Lawson, J. (2003). Fear information and the development of fears during childhood: Effects on implicit fear responses and behavioural avoidance. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 41, 1277–1293.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Fleiss, J. L. (1981). Statistical methods for rates and proportions (2nd ed.). New York: Wiley.Google Scholar
  31. Fullard, W. B., McDevitt, S. C., & Carey, W. B. (1984). Assessing temperament in one- to three-year old children. Journal of Pediatric Psychology, 9, 205–216.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Garcia-Coll, C., Kagan, J., & Reznick, J. S. (1984). Behavioral inhibition in young children. Child Development, 55, 1005–1019.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Gerull, F. C., & Rapee, R. M. (2002). Mother knows best: Effects of maternal modeling on the acquisition of fear and avoidance behavior in toddlers. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 40, 279–287.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Gunnar, M. R., & Stone, C. (1984). The effects of positive maternal affect on infant responses to pleasant, ambiguous, and fear-provoking toys. Child Development, 55, 1231–1236.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Hirshberg, L. M., & Svejda, M. (1990). When infants look to their parents: I. Infants’ social referencing of mothers compared to fathers. Child Development, 61, 1175–1186.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Hornik, R., & Gunnar, M. R. (1988). A descriptive analysis of infant social referencing. Child Development, 59, 626–634.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Hornik, R., Risenhoover, N., & Gunnar, M. R. (1987). The effect of maternal positive, neutral, and negative affective communications on infant responses to new toys. Child Development, 58, 937–944.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Hudson, J. L., & Rapee, R. M. (2004). From anxious temperament to disorder: An etiological model of generalized anxiety disorder. In R. G. Heimberg, C. L. Turk, & D. S. Mennin (Eds.), Generalized anxiety disorder: Advances in research and practice (pp. 51–74). New York: Guilford.Google Scholar
  39. Kagan, J., Reznick, J. S., Clarke, C., Snidman, N., & Garcia-Coll, C. (1984). Behavioral inhibition to the unfamiliar. Child Development, 55, 2212–2225.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Kagan, J., Reznick, J. S., & Snidman, N. (1987). The physiology and psychology of behavioral inhibition in children. Child Development, 58, 1459–1473.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Kessler, R. C., McGonagle, K. A., Zhao, S., Nelson, C. B., Hughes, M., Eshleman, S., et al. (1994). Lifetime and 12-month prevalence of DSM-III-R psychiatric disorders in the United States: Results from the national comorbidity survey. Archives of General Psychiatry, 51, 8–19.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  42. King, N. J., Gullone, E., & Ollendick, T. H. (1998). Etiology of childhood phobias: Current status of Rachman’s three pathways theory. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 36, 297–309.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Klinnert, M. D. (1984). The regulation of infant behavior by maternal facial expression. Infant Behavior and Development, 7, 447–465.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Klinnert, M. D., Emde, R. N., Butterfield, P., & Campos, J. J. (1986). Social referencing: The infant’s use of emotional signals from a friendly adult with mother present. Developmental Psychology, 22, 427–432.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Lang, P. J., Davis, M., & Öhman, A. (2000). Fear and anxiety: Animal models and human cognitive psychophysiology. Journal of Affective Disorders, 61, 137–159.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Lovibond, S. H., & Lovibond, P. F. (1995a). Manual for the Depression Anxiety Stress Scales (2nd ed.). Sydney: Psychology Foundation.Google Scholar
  47. Lovibond, P. F., & Lovibond, S. H. (1995b). The structure of negative emotional states: Comparison of the Depression Anxiety Stress Scales (DASS) with the Beck Depression and Anxiety Inventories. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 33, 335–342.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Marks, I. (1987). Fears, phobias, and rituals: Panic, anxiety, and their disorders. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  49. McNally, R. (1987). Preparedness and phobias: A review. Psychological Bulletin, 101, 283–303.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. McNally, R., & Reiss, G. (1982). The preparedness theory of phobias and human safety-signal conditioning. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 20, 153–159.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Menzies, R. G., & Clarke, J. C. (1993). The etiology of childhood water phobia. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 31, 499–501.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Menzies, R. G., & Clarke, J. C. (1995). The etiology of phobias: A nonassociative account. Clinical Psychological Review, 15, 23–48.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Merckelbach, H., De Jong, P. J., Muris, P., & Van den Hout, M. A. (1996). The etiology of specific phobias: A review. Clinical Psychology Review, 16, 337–361.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Merckelbach, H., Muris, P., & Schouten, E. (1996). Pathways to fear in spider phobic children. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 34, 935–938.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Mineka, S. (1985). Animal models of anxiety-based disorders: Their usefulness and limitations. In A. Tuma, & J. Maser (Eds.), Anxiety and the anxiety disorders (pp. 199–244). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  56. Mineka, S., & Cook, M. (1993). Mechanisms involved in the observational conditioning of fear. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 122, 23–38.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  57. Mineka, S., Davidson, M., Cook, M., & Keir, R. (1984). Observational conditioning of snake fear in rhesus monkeys. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 93, 355–372.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Mineka, S., & Öhman, A. (2002). Phobias and preparedness: The selective, automatic, and encapsulated nature of fear. Biological Psychiatry, 52, 927–937.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Mineka, S., & Zinbarg, R. (1996). Conditioning and ethological models of anxiety disorders: Stress-in-dynamic-context anxiety models. In D. Hope (Ed.), Perspectives on anxiety, panic, and fear (43rd annual Nebraska symposium on motivation). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.Google Scholar
  60. Moses, L. J., Baldwin, D. A., Rosicky, J. G., & Tidball, G. (2001). Evidence for referential understanding in the emotions domain at twelve and eighteen months. Child Development, 72, 718–735.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Mumme, D. L., Fernald, A., & Herrera, C. (1996). Infant’s responses to facial and vocal emotional signals in a social referencing paradigm. Child Development, 67, 3219–3237.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Muris, P., Bodden, D., Merckelbach, H., Ollendick, T. H., & King, N. (2003). Fear of the beast: A prospective study on the effects of negative information on childhood fear. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 41, 195–208.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  63. Muris, P., & Merckelbach, H. (2001). The etiology of childhood specific phobia: A multifactorial model. In M. W. Vasey, & M. R. Dadds (Eds.), The developmental psychopathology of anxiety (pp. 355–385). New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  64. Muris, P., Steerneman, P., Merckelbach, H., & Meesters, C. (1996). The role of parental fearfulness and modeling in children’s fears. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 34, 265–268.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Murray, L., Cooper, P. J., de Rosnay, M., Pearson, J., & Sack, C. (in press). Intergenerational transmission of maternal social anxiety: The role of social referencing processes. Child Development. Google Scholar
  66. Neal, J. A., Edelmann, R. J., & Glachan, M. (2002). Behavioral inhibition and symptoms of anxiety and depression: Is there a specific relationship with social phobia. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 41, 361–374.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Öhman, A. (1979). Fear relevance, autonomic conditioning, and phobias: A laboratory model. In P.-O. Sjöden, S. Bates, & W. S. Dockens III (Eds.), Trends in behavior therapy (pp. 107–134). New York: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  68. Öhman, A. (1986). Face the beast and fear the face: Animal and social fears as prototypes for evolutionary analyses of emotion. Psychophysiology, 23, 123–145.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Öhman, A. (1993). Stimulus prepotency and fear learning: Data and theory. In N. Birbaumer, & A. Öhman (Eds.), The structure of emotion: Psychophysiological, cognitive, and clinical aspects (pp. 218–239). Seattle, WA: Hogrefe & Huber.Google Scholar
  70. Öhman, A., Dimberg, U., & Öst, L.-G. (1985). Biological constraints on the learned fear response. In S. Reiss, & R. Bootzin (Eds.), Theoretical issues in behavior therapy (pp. 123–175). New York: Academic.Google Scholar
  71. Öhman, A., Eriksson, A., & Olofsson, C. (1975). One-trial learning and superior resistance to extinction of autonomic responses conditioned to potentially phobic stimuli. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, 88, 619–627.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Öhman, A., Fredrikson, M., Hugdahl, K., & Rimmö, P.-A. (1976). The premise of equipotentiality in human classical conditioning: Conditioned electrodermal responses to potentially phobic stimuli. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 105, 313–337.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Öhman, A., Hamm, A., & Hugdahl, K. (2000). Cognition and the autonomic nervous system: Orienting, anticipation, and conditioning. In J. T. Cacioppo, L. G. Tassinary, & G. G. Berntson (Eds.), Handbook of Psychophysiology (pp. 522–575). New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  74. Öhman, A., & Mineka, S. (2001). Fears, phobias, and preparedness: Toward an evolved module of fear and fear learning. Psychological Review, 108, 483–522.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Ollendick, T. H., & King, N. J. (1991). Origins of childhood fears: An evaluation of Rachman’s theory of fear acquisition. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 29, 117–123.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Öst, L. G. (1987). Age of onset in different phobias. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 96, 223–229.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  77. Öst, L. G., & Hugdahl, K. (1981). Acquisition of phobias and anxiety response pattern in clinical patients. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 19, 439–447.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  78. Pedlow, R., Sanson, A., Prior, M., & Oberklaid, F. (1993). Stability of maternally reported temperament from infancy to 8 years. Developmental Psychology, 29, 998–1007.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  79. Pine, D. S., Klein, R. G., Mannuzza, S., Moulton, J. L., Lissek, S., Guardino, M., et al. (2005). Face-emotion processing in offspring at risk for panic disorder. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 44, 664–672.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  80. Prior, M., Sanson, A., Oberklaid, F., & Northam, E. (1987). Measurement of temperament in one to three year old children. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 10, 121–132.Google Scholar
  81. Prior, M., Smart, D., Sanson, A., & Oberklaid, F. (2000). Pathways from infancy to adolescence: Australian Temperament Project 1983–2000. Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.Google Scholar
  82. Rachman, S. (1977). The conditioning theory of fear acquisition: A critical examination. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 15, 375–387.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  83. Rachman, S. (1991). Neoconditioning and the classical theory of fear acquisition. Clinical Psychology Review, 17, 47–67.Google Scholar
  84. Rapee, R. M. (2001). The development of generalized anxiety disorder. In M. W. Vasey, & M. R. Dadds (Eds.), The developmental psychopathology of anxiety (pp. 481–503). New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  85. Rapee, R. M., & Spence, S. H. (2004). The etiology of social phobia: Empirical evidence and an initial model. Clinical Psychology Review, 24, 737–767.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  86. Repacholi, B. M. (1998). Infant’s use of attentional cues to identify the referent of another person’s emotional expression. Developmental Psychology, 34, 1017–1025.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  87. Reznick, J. S., Kagan, J., Snidman, N., Gersten, M., Baak, K., & Rosenberg, A. (1986). Inhibited and uninhibited children: A follow-up study. Child Development, 57, 660–680.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  88. Rosen, W. D., Adamson, L. B., & Bakeman, R. (1992). An experimental investigation of infant social referencing: Mothers’ messages and gender differences. Developmental Psychology, 28, 1172–1178.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  89. Sawchuk, C. N., Lohr, J. M., Westendorf, D. H., Meunier, S. A., & Tolin, D. F. (2002). Emotional responding to fearful and disgusting stimuli in specific phobics. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 40, 1031–1046.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  90. Seligman, M. E. P. (1971). Phobias and preparedness. Behavior Therapy, 2, 307–320.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  91. Sewell, J., Oberklaid, F., Prior, M., Sanson, A., & Kyrios, M. (1988). Temperament in Australian toddlers. Australian Pediatric Journal, 24, 343–345.Google Scholar
  92. Shrout, P. E., & Fleiss, J. L. (1979). Intraclass correlations: Uses in assessing rater reliability. Psychological Bulletin, 86, 420–428.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  93. Siegler, R., DeLoache, J., & Eisenberg, N. (2003). How children develop. New York: Worth.Google Scholar
  94. Thunberg, M., & Dimberg, U. (2000). Gender differences in facial reactions to fear-relevant stimuli. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 24, 45–51.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  95. Verhulst, F. C., Van der Ende, J., Ferdinand, R. F., & Kasius, M. C. (1997). The prevalence of DSM-III-R diagnoses in a national sample of Dutch adolescents. Archives of General Psychiatry, 54, 329–336.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  96. Watt, M. C., & Stewart, S. H. (2000). Anxiety sensitivity mediates the relationships between childhood learning experiences and elevated hypochondriacal concerns in young adulthood. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 49, 107–118.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  97. Watt, M. C., Stewart, S. H., & Cox, B. J. (1998). A retrospective study of the learning history origins of anxiety sensitivity. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 36, 505–525.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  98. Weems, C. F., & Stickle, T. R. (2005). Anxiety disorders in childhood: Casting a nomological net. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 8, 107–134.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  • Kathrin Dubi
    • 1
  • Ronald M. Rapee
    • 2
  • Jane L. Emerton
    • 3
  • Carolyn A. Schniering
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of BaselBaselSwitzerland
  2. 2.Department of PsychologyMacquarie UniversitySydneyAustralia
  3. 3.Department of PsychologyUniversity of BathBathUK

Personalised recommendations