Helicopter, Snowplow, and Bubble-Wrap Parenting
How is anxiety transmitted from parents to their children?
Posted May 23, 2017
It’s hard to deny that parents are more involved in their children’s lives and education than ever before. Parents micromanage their offspring in almost every way—often in the form of contradictions, such as limiting television time and iPhone activity, but providing them with the latest X-Box and every new gadget that will make them the envy of their peer group. Then there’s the after-school geography club and taekwondo lessons, the Saturday morning dance class and junior football league, the meticulously selected sleep-overs, and the fastidious monitoring of daily sugar and chocolate intake. The modern Internet era allows even more forms of elaborate child monitoring, from ensuring that location services are constantly active on little Noah’s smartphone, to employing drones to watch Olivia walk to school!
These micromanaging mums and dads are known as helicopter parents, and are a modern world phenomenon—constantly searching the Internet for ‘better’ ways of parenting, using modern communications technology to monitor their offspring’s every move, and paying particularly close and cosseting attention to their child’s education progress—who else could’ve designed 8-year-old Liam’s elaborate school science fair project depicting perfectly scale-sized models of craters on the moon! In addition, there are also the snowplow parents—the overprotective ones who ‘plow’ onwards before their child, removing everything in life that might be a potential obstacle before their child encounters them.
What’s all this got to do with anxiety? Well, maybe parents who swathe their children in protective bubble-wrap do have a lot to answer for when it comes to their offspring’s anxieties. We’ve known for decades that anxiety seems to run in families, with over 80 percent of parents of children with anxiety problems exhibiting significant levels of anxiety themselves. Given that genetic inheritance is not an overwhelming contributor to the variance in our anxiety levels, this strongly suggests that anxiety may somehow be socially “transmitted” within the family. We would automatically assume this is a parent influencing their children, but we also know that children can quite regularly influence the behavior of their parents—so this transmission might easily be bidirectional.
To begin with, there are a number of ways in which parents might transmit anxiety to their children—both direct and indirect. In an important early study, Peter Muris, Professor of Child Psychology at the University of Maastricht, asked mothers the extent to which they generally expressed their fears in the presence of their children. He found that mothers who always reported expressing their fears in their children’s presence had children with the highest levels of self-reported fears. Interestingly, this effect of the mother’s expressed anxieties on their offspring’s fears was not found for fathers—it was an effect entirely specific to mothers.
Another direct way in which anxiety can be transmitted from parents to their children is through the modeling of avoidance—it’s likely to be the case that extremely avoidant parents model avoidance as a coping strategy when confronted with potential threats and challenges. This has been shown to be the case with the transmission of social anxiety between parents and offspring. For example, parents who tend to be socially isolated (who rarely go out except on special occasions), or express concern with other people’s opinions (by placing importance on how it would look to other people if, for example, their child didn’t do well at school), or show avoidance to socially relevant stimuli (by avoiding some social gatherings because of shyness) tend to have children who also show high levels of social anxiety during their development. And this too is an effect that is found much more reliably with anxious mothers than with anxious fathers. In fact, it’s not just older children who are affected by the anxiety cues transmitted by their parents. Infants and toddlers as young as 10 months old have been shown to be influenced by their mother’s behavior, including responding with fear to fearful gestures and expressions, and—in a research article intriguingly titled “Mother knows best”—showing avoidance to toys to which their mother has reacted negatively.
Now we come to the helicopter and snowplow parents. Parents can bring many different characteristics to their parenting, and one of the characteristics that appears to facilitate child anxiety is overprotectiveness. Overanxious or overprotective parenting generates a lack of confidence and feelings of inadequacy in a child. Studies carried out by psychologist Ron Rapee and colleagues at Macquarie University in Australia cleverly demonstrated that when mother and child are jointly engaged in a puzzle task, overprotective or anxious mothers are significantly more likely to be intrusive and become overly involved with the child in order to reduce the child’s distress. This over-involvement increases the child’s vulnerability to anxiety by increasing the child’s perception of threat, reducing their perceived control over threat, and increasing their avoidance of threat. Being a mother and doing the right thing for your child is clearly a thankless task!
Ron Rapee has argued that overprotective parents may regularly—but inadvertently—support, assist in, or reward their children’s anxious or avoidant behavior. Allowing a child to stay home from a social event or school when they’re feeling anxious or fearful, reducing a child’s distress with special treatment, bringing toys in from the garden if there’s a feared dog present—such acts may well encourage children to continue to be anxious in order to receive comfort from their parents or avoid situations that make them fearful. Just to exacerbate these kinds of effects, it’s also clear from many early studies that once a child begins to react anxiously, their mother will often begin to behave more negatively towards them, creating a potential vicious cycle of anxiety and negativity between mother and child.
You’ll have noticed that this blog post has very much focused on mothers as being the agents of the transmission of anxiety within families. This is because studies have often failed to find similar effects with fathers. So, what’s the role of the father in all this? This is far from clear, although Susan Bögels and colleagues from the University of Amsterdam have argued that the evolved basis of sex differences in parenting means that mothers and fathers will convey quite different aspects of anxiety to their offspring. Mothers will tend to transmit caution and information about threat (with overly anxious mothers transmitting more anxiety to their offspring), whereas fathers may be more likely to teach their offspring how to explore the environment and compete with others (and in so doing, reduce anxiety). One implication of this argument is that it may be more difficult for anxious fathers to alleviate their children’s anxiety, because a father’s anxiety will hinder their own role in exploring the external world and interacting with others – behaviors that would be important in demonstrating to their offspring what is safe in the world.
“They f**k you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.”
That’s the first verse of Philip Larkin’s famous—but harsh—poem "This Be The Verse." So, good luck, kids! You didn’t come with a manual, so you’ve only got a lifetime to live with the anxieties your poor, struggling parents bestowed on you! What’s the best you could expect? Well, think yourself lucky if you have a non-anxious mother who is not overprotective and has a good set of positive coping strategies to model for you. And then there’s Dad—make sure he’s also non-anxious, outgoing and sociable, and ready and willing to show you what’s safe and fun in the modern world. Have you got them both? Then you’re very, very lucky!
 Ginsburg GS & Schlossberg MC (2002) Family-based treatment of childhood anxiety disorders. International Review of Psychiatry, 14, 143-154.
 Bruch MA & Heimberg RG (1994) Differences in perceptions of parental and personal characteristics between generalized and nongeneralized social phobics. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 8, 155-168.
 Feinmann S (Ed) (1992) Social referencing and the social construction of reality in infants. New York: Plenum Press.
 Gerull FC & Rapee RM (2002) Mother knows best: Effects of maternal modeling on the acquisition of fear and avoidance behavior in toddlers. Behaviour Research & Therapy, 40, 279-287.
 Hudson JL & Rapee RM (2002) Parent-child interactions in clinically anxious children and their siblings. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, 31, 548-555.
 Möller EL, Majdandžić M, de Vente W, & Bögels SM (2013) The evolutionary basis of sex differences in parenting and its relationship with child anxiety in western societies. Journal of Experimental Psychopathology, 4, 88-117.