Feeling Stressed? New NIMH-Funded Study Examines the Correlation Between Stress Regulation and Parenting Behaviors

Child psychologist details study’s aims, and how parents’ own stress regulation and underlying physiology influences their parenting style, and their children’s behaviors.

By Katherine Gianni

Photo by Sandsome Worklifestyle on Unsplash.

Stressful experiences come in many forms: a tough day at the office, relationship troubles, financial strain, or even forgetting to defrost the chicken in the back of the freezer in time for dinner. But what many parents may overlook is the impact that these “adult” stressors — and their ability to self-regulate the consequential irritation, can have on both their parenting styles and their children’s own anxiety-levels and behaviors. In a new study, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, Boston University child psychologist Nick Wagner and his fellow research collaborators will test whether and how parents’ physiological dysregulation impacts anxious parenting behaviors and whether these patterns of regulation are linked to their children’s future risk for social anxiety. In other words, do parents’ own self-regulation and anxious feelings impact their parenting behaviors? And what does it mean for their children? We caught up with him to learn more about the research implications.

In your own words, please describe the study.

The goal of this study is to better understand how parents’ own stress regulation and underlying physiology influences their parenting behaviors, and particularly those parenting behaviors which are implicated in the links between children’s temperamental fearfulness or behavioral inhibition (BI). BI describes a tendency to be fearful in unfamiliar situations which contributes to displays of socially reticent, withdrawn, and anxious behaviors in the presence of familiar and unfamiliar peers. BI is a relatively stable individual characteristic during childhood and adolescence and is a risk factor for later anxiety disorders. The links between parents’ intrusive-controlling (IC) parenting and children’s risk for anxiety problems are reasonably well understood, which makes parents’ own behaviors a promising treatment target. There are a number of effective parenting-focused interventions and treatments for shy and anxious children. The study will use data collected during a randomized control trial designed to compare an intensive multi-component intervention (i.e., combination of parent- and child-focused interventions) called the “Turtle Program” with a psychoeducation-focused program and currently the best available treatment for preschool anxiety.

Parents and their children, ages 3 and a half to five-years-old came in for lab visits before, in the middle of, and after treatment during which they completed a number of tasks. First, children completed a number of computerized tasks meant to simulate social experiences and specifically introducing themselves to peers. Parents were seated behind their children for the duration of these ‘social stressors’, and we collected information on the parents’ and the children’s physiological regulation throughout. We also observed parents interacting with their children in various settings which were coded for behaviors of interest, and children were observed both in their classrooms and while interacting in play groups with unfamiliar peers.

What are some of the key indicators of behavioral inhibition (BI)? How does this correlate to the risk of anxiety disorders?

Fear of novelty is really the key thing. Exaggerated hesitancy or fearful retreat when exposed to novel social experiences, freezing, anxious behaviors like nail biting, shaking, rocking back and forth, and the like. The idea is that kids who are highly inhibited or shy want to approach and engage with other kids but are scared or motivated to avoid — so there is an approach-avoidance conflict. In a preschool classroom this results in a lot of onlooking behavior — watching but not approaching. Or ignoring the bids of other kids. It depends on the age of the child.

Photo by Benjamin Voros on Unsplash.

What are some examples of intrusive-controlling (IC) parenting behaviors?

Parents of BI children often perceive them as vulnerable and exhibit overprotective and controlling behaviors as a result. Early BI predicts adolescent anxiety disorder (AD), but only in the presence of early observed IC parenting. However, when parents instead respond with sensitivity and encouragement in anxiety-provoking situations, their children are redirected from negative outcomes. Of course there are many situations when parents need to intervene in what might otherwise be considered intrusive ways, but the main distinction here is that non-threatening social situations are viewed and acted upon by parents as if they were threatening.

This could include physical behaviors like grabbing kids arms, tensing up, pulling kids back, and/or verbal things — how situations are described and processed together. Typically the most effective parenting is contingent both on what the child needs (they usually let parents know) and the context (what they need is usually context — and age — dependent). You can see how learning how parents regulate physiology while watching their kids traverse social stressors might give us insight into how those experiences are being perceived by the parent. The question is whether this perception and accompanying regulatory patterns influence their behaviors.

What do you hope this study will uncover?

The goals of the study are to:

  1. Establish the influences of parents’ regulation on their parenting behaviors and test whether these links are moderated by parents’ anxiety.
  2. Test the influences of parents’ regulation and parenting on reductions in child BI across treatment, whether children’s own regulation mediates these associations (i.e., is one mechanism instigating intervention response), and the moderating role of parents’ anxiety (i.e., Does the intervention work better or worse for anxious or non-anxious parents? And, what does their regulation have to do with it?)

Essentially we want to learn more about what underlies the types of parenting behaviors we target in intervention. It could be that parents who are dysregulated AND do these types of behaviors need one type of intervention whereas a parent who is less dysregulated may need something else. Without asking the questions in this proposal (only looking at their behaviors) we’d not know whether this is the case.

Photo by Conner Baker on Unsplash.

Who are the key research collaborators, if any?

Drs. Ken Rubin and Andrea Chronis-Tuscano are co-investigators and the PIs of the intervention study described above. From the grant regarding their work: Co-I Chronis-Tuscano is a clinical psychologist whose research focuses broadly on early intervention for anxiety and ADHD. Her NIH-funded work focuses on the trajectory of BI and anxiety, and targeted parenting interventions. Co-I Rubin has studied the origins, concomitants, and consequences of BI for over 30 years. His work has been seminal in our understanding of the course and consequences of BI including the role of IC parenting in the prediction of AD.

For additional commentary by Boston University experts, follow us on Twitter at @BUexperts. Follow Professor Wagner at @nickjameswagner.

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