Children of Parents with Anxiety Disorders More Susceptible to Anxiety

June 8, 2009

A study has found that the children of parents who have an anxiety disorder are at a much greater risk for developing an anxiety disorder themselves.

The children of parents who have an anxiety disorder are at a much greater risk for developing an anxiety disorder themselves, a new study has found.

Researchers at the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center found that children whose parents are diagnosed as having an anxiety disorder were as much as seven times more likely to develop a disorder themselves. In addition, as many as 65% of children who live with parents with anxiety disorders also meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder.

Senior investigator Golda Ginsburg, PhD, a child psychologist at Hopkins Children’s Center and associate professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and her fellow researchers studied 40 children between the ages of 7 and 12 who had not been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, but had either one or both parents who had been. Half of these children and parents were given weekly hour-long counseling sessions “designed to help parents identify and change behaviors believed to contribute to anxiety in the children, while at the same time teaching children coping and problem-solving skills.” The second half of participants were given no therapy during the study, but were offered counseling a year later.

After a year, 30% of children who had not received counseling had developed an anxiety disorder, compared to none of the children who had undergone therapy. Once these children had received counseling, researchers and parents, independently, “reported a 40-percent drop in anxiety symptoms in the year following the prevention program.”

The parents’ behaviors were modified with treatment and included “overprotection, excessive criticism, and excessive expression of fear and anxiety in front of the children.” The program focused on childhood risk factors for anxiety, including avoiding anxiety-provoking situations and anxious thoughts.

“If psychiatrists or family doctors diagnose anxiety in adult patients, it’s now clearly a good idea that they ask about the patients’ children and, if appropriate, refer them for evaluation,” said Ginsburg. “Right now, most doctors don’t think about this, let alone broach the subject.”

Findings of the study will be published in the June issue of the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychiatry.