The Important Role of Parents and Peers in Childhood Social Anxiety

Article summary provided by Hillary Greene

Childhood social anxiety does not exist in isolation. Parental factors (e.g., parental anxiety, parental rejection) and peer factors (e.g., social support, validation) are associated significantly with childhood anxiety. Understanding the connections among parental and peer factors and childhood social anxiety can help families to seek appropriate multi-faceted treatments and to seek ways to help protect their children from the risks associated with social anxiety. See details below, which reflect information presented in a recent study (Festa & Ginsburg, 2011).

What parental and peer factors are associated with childhood social anxiety?
Research has shown that parental anxiety and parental behaviors, such as parental overcontrol (overprotection) and possibly parental rejection, are associated directly with levels of anxiety in their children. Research also has shown that peer factors, such as social support, social acceptance, and quality of friendships, are associated with childhood social anxiety (Festa & Ginsburg, 2011).

What are the main points from this recent study on parental and peer factors associated with childhood social anxiety?
Although we know that parents and peers matter in childhood anxiety, there is little research looking at the relationships of parental factors and peer factors together and childhood social anxiety (Festa & Ginsburg, 2011). This research is important to help families decide on the best treatment and prevention methods for children showing signs of social anxiety.

In this study, Festa and Ginsburg (2011) looked at a group of children, ages 7 to 12-years-old, who showed some social anxiety symptoms but who did not meet full criteria for social phobia. The researchers also included parents in the study, usually mothers, about half of whom met criteria for an anxiety disorder. Parents, children, and independent raters completed measures of parental behaviors, peer characteristics, and child anxiety levels.

Overall, this study found that both parental factors and peer factors significantly predicted social anxiety in children.

• Parental factors associated with higher levels of child social anxiety included parental anxiety, such as having generalized anxiety disorder or social phobia, parental rejection, such as parents being very critical of their children, and children’s perception of parental overprotection.

• Peer factors associated with lower levels of child social anxiety included perceived social support, social acceptance, and validation, such as children’s perception of having an encouraging best friend who fosters feelings of competence.

These findings highlight the importance of considering multiple influences on childhood social anxiety, especially the importance of parenting behaviors and peer interactions. Note, however, that although the factors described in this study play an important role in understanding childhood social anxiety, they do not tell the entire story or account for all of the differences seen in childhood social anxiety. More research still is needed.

How can families use this research to plan treatment for children with social anxiety?
This research emphasizes the importance of families and caregivers seeking treatment for socially anxious children that addresses both individual and family level factors. For example, families might speak with their clinicians about ways to help manage parental anxiety or ways to help improve parenting behaviors associated with child anxiety. Also, families might work with clinicians to determine how their children perceive parent-child interactions and work together to build more positive perceptions and experiences in these relationships.

How can families use this research to help protect children from risks associated with social anxiety?
This research shows how important positive peer interactions and perceptions are for children’s mental health, especially relating to lower levels of social anxiety. Families might work to increase opportunities for their children to build positive and supportive friendships and encourage their children to engage with peers who are validating. Families also might work with their clinicians to help children build social skills and confidence to help with these peer interactions (Motoca, Williams, & Silverman, 2012).

Where can families learn more about this research?
This website provides a free link to the research article discussed in this review and shows a list of related research studies available to the public:

Festa, C. C., & Ginsburg, G. S. (2011). Parental and Peer Predictors of Social Anxiety in Youth. Child Psychiatry and Human Development, 42, 291-306.
Motoca, L. M., Williams, S., & Silverman, W. K. (2012). Social skills as mediator between anxiety symptoms and peer interactions among children and adolescents. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 3, 329-336.

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