Children, Parent Reaction and Growth of Fear

Emma Young, Psychological Research Digest, reports on the links between how children can learn to fear vicariously by watching parents’ reactions. November 2020.

How do children learn to fear things that aren’t obviously scary, but that do pose a threat — to learn, say, that touching the base of a lit barbecue is a very bad idea, so should never be done? A parent might explain that it’s dangerously hot. But as a new paper published in Scientific Reports explores in detail, we also benefit from another more direct, wordless method of learning about threats.

Or rather, we may typically benefit from it — but, Marie-France Marin at the University of Quebec and her colleagues argue, it might also help to explain how anxiety disorders are transmitted down through generations.

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Marin and her team set out to explore so-called vicarious learning between 83 child-parent pairs. This entails learning by observing another person’s reactions to objects or events. So if a child sees a parent flinch after touching  a lit barbecue, despite never having experienced that pain themselves, they can learn never to do it.

The team wanted to look, though, at how this type of learning might manifest at the physiological level. Fear and anxiety are characterised by an increase in physiological arousal — a raised heart rate, blood pressure, sweating, and so on — all of which gear up the individual for fight or flight.

For this study, the team focused on skin conductance as an indicator of general physiological arousal. Each parent was fitted with sensors to measure this, as well as electrodes that were set to deliver an “annoying” rather than painful shock.

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The parent was then videotaped while they watched, via a monitor, a lamp that flashed various colours. When one particular colour flashed (either red or blue), five times out of eight the parent received a shock. When another colour (yellow) was flashed, a shock was never administered. They learned, then, to associate one particular colour with receiving a shock, and one with being safe.

See more on children’s reactions in BPS here!

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