Pathways to Anxiety: Contributions of Attachment History, Temperament, Peer Competence, and Ability to Manage Intense Emotions

Brumariu, L.E., & Kerns, K.A. (2013), Child Psychiatry Human Development, 44, 504-515

We are all too familiar with reports of a steady increase in the number of childhood anxiety related concerns observed by parents and school staff. The attached article from the journal of Child Psychiatry and Human Development details the results of a longitudinal study which followed a group of children for approximately a decade to investigate mechanisms and skills that may contribute to the development of anxiety.

The study can be discussed as comprising of two parts. The first part examined the association between early attachment patterns with a parental figure and child temperament with preadolescent anxiety. As predicted, the results showed that the type of attachment with a parental figure (whether a child is secure, avoidant, preoccupied or disorganised in their attachment) and child temperament (negative emotional or shy) predicted the likelihood of a child developing preadolescent anxiety. The second aim of the study was to consider the impact of a child’s ability to regulate their emotions and relate to peers on these particular pathways to anxiety. The results were interesting, although perhaps unsurprising as both emotion regulation and competence in peer relations acted as a mediating influence, increasing or decreasing the likelihood of developing anxiety in preadolescence.

The researchers acknowledged that in focussing specifically on parental attachment and aspects of childhood temperament, there were a number of other contributors to anxiety that were not included. Nevertheless, the value of these results may lie in the capacity for skills in emotion regulation and peer relations to act as a protective factor against anxiety.

When a child begins school, it is likely that their ability to function successfully in the school environment is influenced by a combination of their own unique individual differences (personality, temperament, general intelligence) and their early upbringing (parental interactions, environmental factors). These factors which are largely outside of the control of the education system can continue to impact on the child throughout their education, at times causing staff to feel helpless and creating barriers to wellbeing and academic outcomes. Studies such as these offer an evidence based response, such that in developing the emotional intelligence and social skills of students, we may be arming students with protective behaviours and skills to safeguard against increasingly common psychological conditions.