Can Your Anxious Child’s Friends Impact Fear and Anxiety?

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Many children have fearful thoughts, although these thoughts largely tend to decrease over time. In certain cases, however, some children may begin to develop heightened fears that disrupt their daily lives. A number of factors can contribute to a child’s fears and his or her development of anxiety. Genetics can play a role, as can the type of information children receive from their parents, teachers and others in learning situations.

And a study now also suggests children’s fearful thoughts, as well as ideas on how to behave in fearful situations, can be influenced by their friends. 

The Study

The study, which was published in Behaviour Research and Therapy, involved 136 girls and 106 boys aged 7 to 10 years old. The children were first given questionnaires to gauge their anxiety levels and beliefs about fear.

The children were then shown pictures of two different animals, the quoll and the cuscus, Australian marsupials with which the children were unlikely to be familiar. Researchers shared two descriptions of the animals, one that was neutral and another that outlined the animals as dangerous.

After sharing the varying descriptions, researchers assessed how children felt about each animal on their own. The children were then asked to talk about the animals with close friends.

To measure how the children felt about the animals after talking with pals, the children were directed to maps that had animals on a path. The children were asked to mark the area where they would be most comfortable in relation to the animals. Children who marked areas an extensive distance from the animals were expressing how they wanted to avoid the animals, an indication of fear.

After talking with their friends, children were more apt to have fear responses that were similar to their pals – with some notable differences between girls and boys. When girls discussed their thoughts about the animals, many ended up showing significant decreases in fear levels. Boys, on the other hand, tended to show significant increases in fear levels after their discussion.

What This Means

While the study was rather small and did not determine how much influence friends had on fear in relation to genetics or family members, it did uncover interesting information.

Even when children talk about their fears with friends who are actually more anxious then they are, children’s thoughts on fear don’t necessarily become more negative. Researchers noted this finding can support group therapy as an effective option. The info can also help parents concerned about putting their children in group therapy sessions with other children who have higher anxiety levels.

And although children who shared the same patterns of fear-related thought appeared to influence each other’s fears, the outcome was not always negative. In many instances, children were actually able to talk about their fears and resolve them in a positive manner.

Letting your anxious child know you’re always willing to listen can also help with it comes to fear, anxiety and any other issues your child may have. One of the most effective ways to dispel fears is to face them, and letting your children know you’re there for them can be just the impetus they need to bring their fears out in the open.

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Photo Credit: Chris Robinson Photography Flickr via Compfight cc

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