How parent-infant relationships can lead to teen anxiety


At what stage should parents be worried about a child or teen developing a mental health disorder? How early should they be careful about what they do or say around their child? When should they worry that they may be cultivating something like an anxiety disorder within their child? Apparently, the time parents should start being wary of this is when their child is an infant.

A recent study called “Infant Attachment Security and Early Childhood Behavioral Inhibition Interact to Predict Adolescent Social Anxiety Symptoms” was published in the journal Child Development and looked into the ways that the quality of the parent-infant relationship early childhood shyness could be predictors of teenage anxiety. Researchers at the University of Maryland observed 165 European-American upper- to middle-class children from the time they were recruited as infants at four months to the time they were teenagers of 14 to 17 years of age.

When the children were infants they were observed in a lab to see how they responded to brief separations from their parents and were classified as having secure or insecure attachment to their parents based on their reactions. Infants who initiated contact with their parents and/or were able to calm down upon their parents’ return were noted as being securely attached. Conversely, infants who ignored, withdrew or were unable to calm down or reacted angrily towards their parents after the separation were marked as insecurely attached.

The first test occurred at 14 months with similar tests occurring at 24, 48 and 84 months of age for each child. In addition to the tests, parents answered questionnaires about their children’s behaviors in new situations and/or with new peers. Researchers used the lab results and the questionnaires to classify their children according to how inhibited their behavior was over time.

Researchers asked the study’s participants and their parents to complete questionnaires about the participants’ anxiety when they had reached 14 to 17 years of age. The adolescents who reported feeling nervous in situations where there would be people they didn’t know well enough or felt nervous when having to be in front of an audience scored higher on social anxiety than those adolescents who had such feelings less frequently.

By combining the results from the lab and questionnaires, researchers found that those children who were insecurely attached to their parents as infants and demonstrated inhibited behavior throughout childhood had higher social anxiety levels as adolescents. The adolescent social anxiety was strongest in those children who had reacted angrily after being separated from their parents as infants. Additionally, the study determined that teen males who were insecurely attached as infants and inhibited in early childhood were the most at risk for social anxiety.

Social anxiety disorder is one of the most common disorders among children and adolescents, affecting 5.5 percent of 13 to 18 year olds. Teens affected by this disorder suffer from the excessive fear of social and/or performance situations, becoming overly concerned that they may do something embarrassing and that others will think badly of them. This disorder leads to a lot of self-consciousness for teens, often inhibiting their ability to go about their daily lives and taking a toll on their grades, confidence and ability to make and keep friends.

If social anxiety disorder in a teenager is not dealt with, it can last into adulthood and cause further problems. The benefit of this study is that the disorder may be prevented early by allowing medical professionals to identify specific factors that can increase the risk of a child developing the symptoms and therefore can start receiving treatment. This can and will provide teens with a better chance at properly dealing with the disorder and developing happier lives that are free of crippling anxiety.

If your teenager is struggling with adolescent social anxiety, you can learn more about treatment for anxiety disorders at or by calling 866-520-0905 for more information.

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