A new study on young people provides evidence that individuals exposed to more threatening behavior from their mothers during childhood tend to experience increased feelings of helplessness and exhibit lower self-efficacy as adults. Additionally, the study, published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, suggests that exposure to maternal threatening behavior in childhood is indirectly associated with anxiety in adulthood.
Anxiety disorders are a group of mental health conditions characterized by excessive and persistent feelings of fear, worry, or anxiety that can interfere with a person’s daily life. This category includes generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and specific phobias. Symptoms typically include restlessness, muscle tension, rapid heart rate, excessive sweating, and intense fear, often occurring without an apparent reason. Approximately one in five adults in the U.S. is diagnosed with an anxiety disorder in their lifetime, making it one of the most common mental health conditions.
Studies have indicated that certain parenting practices might contribute to the development of anxiety in children. Parents who are overly protective, controlling or rejecting of their children are believed to increase the risk that the children will develop an anxiety disorder. Inquiries into specific parental behaviors that might lead to anxiety have highlighted parental threatening behaviors as a potential culprit. These behaviors include threats of rejection, abandonment, or punishment expressed by the parent and directed towards the child.
Study author Erika S. Trent and her colleagues wanted to explore the links between childhood exposure to maternal and paternal threatening behaviors and anxiety symptoms in young adults. In other words, they wanted to know whether the presence and severity of anxiety symptoms in young adults is associated with how often and how seriously they were threatened by their mothers or fathers when they were children. These researchers were also interested in studying whether perceived helplessness and self-efficacy play a role in this link.
The study involved 855 undergraduate students aged between 18 and 24 years, with 71% female and 73% non-Hispanic White participants. These individuals were recruited through the psychology subject pool at the university where the study was conducted.
Participants completed an online survey assessing their childhood exposure to parental threatening behaviors (using the Parent Threat Inventory), perceived stress through measures of self-efficacy and helplessness (the Perceived Stress Scale), and the presence and severity of anxiety symptoms (including the Brief Symptom Inventory, the Brief Measure of Worry Severity, the Positive and Negative Affectivity Scale, and the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory – trait version).
The researchers found that childhood threatening behaviors of mothers and fathers were very strongly associated. In other words, participants who reported being threatened more by their mothers tended to also report higher levels of threatening behaviors by their fathers when they were children. Women tended to report somewhat higher perceived helplessness and anxiety compared to males.
Participants scoring higher on perceived helplessness and lower on self-efficacy tended to report more severe anxiety symptoms. Participants identifying as ethnic or racial minorities tended to report more threatening behaviors from both their fathers and mothers. Older participants tended to report greater threatening behaviors by fathers in childhood.
The study found that threatening behaviors from both mothers and fathers were linked to lower self-efficacy and higher perceived helplessness, with a slightly stronger association with maternal behaviors. The authors developed and tested a statistical model suggesting that childhood threatening behaviors from mothers and fathers lead to increased perceived helplessness and lower self-efficacy, subsequently resulting in heightened anxiety symptom severity. The analysis indicated that only maternal, not paternal, threatening behaviors were connected with these factors as proposed in the model.
“Results indicated that greater childhood exposure to maternal threatening behaviors was indirectly associated with anxiety symptom severity through greater perceived helplessness and poorer self‐efficacy,” the study authors wrote. “In contrast, childhood exposure to paternal threatening behaviors was neither directly nor indirectly associated with anxiety severity. These findings underscore the long‐lasting effects of childhood experiences on emerging adults’ anxiety symptoms, as well as perceived stress as a potentially useful treatment target for emerging adults who struggle with anxiety.”
The study sheds light on the links between childhood experiences and anxiety in adulthood. However, it should be noted that childhood experiences in this study were only assessed based on reported memories of participants who were adults. Additionally, given the strong association between maternal and paternal threatening behaviors, it remains unclear whether the conclusion about the absence of the indirect link between paternal threatening behavior and anxiety is real or just a statistical artifact caused by the strong association between maternal and paternal threatening behaviors. The model itself essentially shows that paternal threatening behavior is linked with anxiety, perceived helplessness and self-efficacy via maternal threatening behaviors.
Finally, although the authors tested a statistical model implying causal links, the study design does not allow any cause-and-effect inferences to be made. Just as it is possible that childhood threatening behaviors influence later anxiety, it is also possible that more anxious individuals tend to recall the same parental behaviors as more threatening than less anxious individuals.
The study, “Childhood exposure to parental threatening behaviors and anxiety in emerging adulthood: Indirect effects of perceived stress”, was authored by Erika S. Trent, Andres G. Viana, Elizabeth M. Raines, Haley E. Conroy Busch, Karina Silva, Eric A. Storch, and Michael J. Zvolensky.