Parental Reactivity and the Link Between Parent and Child Anxiety Symptoms

Abstract

Ample research documents a link between parent and child anxiety, yet little work has examined parents’ and children’s emotional reactivity for their association with parent–child anxiety transmission. Using a community sample, here we evaluate parents’ subjective emotional reactions to imagining their children feeling afraid and examine (1) their link with parental anxiety and (2) whether this reactivity moderates the association between parent anxiety and children’s subjective and physiological reactivity [resting respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA)]. Finally, we evaluate whether these two indices of children’s reactivity act as indirect effects between parental anxiety and child anxiety, and whether this association is moderated by parents’ reactivity to the child’s fear (moderated mediation). School-aged children (N = 75) and their primary caregivers reported on their anxiety symptoms. Parents and children then completed parallel paradigms in which they imagined the child feeling afraid and reported on their reactivity. Children’s resting RSA was assessed as they watched a nature video. The association between parental anxiety and children’s subjective and physiological reactivity was moderated by parents’ reactivity, such that only when parents reported high reactivity was there a significant association between parental anxiety and children’s self-reported and physiological reactivity. Further, children’s physiological reactivity acted as an indirect effect in the link between parents’ and children’s anxiety symptoms, but only for parents who reported high levels of reactivity to child fear. Results are discussed in terms of their contribution to the literature on parent–child relationships and anxiety.

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Correspondence to Jessica L. Borelli.

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Borelli, J.L., Rasmussen, H.F., John, H.K.S. et al. Parental Reactivity and the Link Between Parent and Child Anxiety Symptoms. J Child Fam Stud 24, 3130–3144 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10826-015-0117-7

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Keywords

  • Anxiety
  • Reactivity
  • Parenting
  • Respiratory sinus arrhythmia
  • Emotion