Close friendships between children can influence responses to fear

Close friends may influence how school-aged children think about danger.

It is well known that fears are common in children and although these usually diminish over time, some children go on to develop significant fears that can interfere with their daily lives. Specific phobias are the more common form of childhood anxiety and if left untreated they can continue into adulthood.

While some childhood fears can be explained by a child’s genetic inheritance, there is considerable evidence that children’s fears are affected by direct learning and the information they are given from others, for example their parents. This study suggests that the transmission of fears, as well as ideas about how to behave in fear-provoking situations, might also occur in other close relationships, such as those with friends.

For the purpose of the study, the researchers involved 242 school children aged between seven and 10 years. Children were asked to complete questionnaires on fear beliefs and anxiety. The children were shown images of Australian marsupials, the Cuscus and the Quoll and were told frightening and ambiguous information about the creatures.

Initially the fear responses with individual children were analyzed and later their responses after discussion with their close friend were studied. The children were also involved in another task to test their behavior related to avoidance of potential danger.

It was found that children influenced each other's fear beliefs after the discussion task. Interestingly, children in boy-boy pairs showed a significant increase in their fear responses following the discussion of something that was potentially threatening or dangerous. For boys, their level of fear and anxiety significantly reinforced itself in boy-boy pairs. But, the girl-girl pairs actually showed a significant decrease in their fear beliefs when they talked about something that might be potentially threatening or scary with a girlfriend.

One groundbreaking discovery of this research is that children's fear-related thoughts do not necessarily become more negative when children discuss their fears with close friends who are more anxious. The authors say this supports the use of group-based therapy.

Lead author Dr Jinnie Ooi, who conducted the research as part of her PhD at UEA’s School of Psychology, said the findings could have practical implications for professionals working with children, for example those being treated for anxiety disorders.

“Our findings indicate that close friends may share negative thoughts and to some extent may maintain these thoughts,” said Dr Ooi, a senior research associate. “Hopefully with this knowledge, we may be able to design interventions whereby close friends can help change their friends’ thoughts during therapy.

“It may also be beneficial to ask children being treated for anxiety disorders to identify whether they have friends who may be influencing or maintaining their negative thoughts, and it may subsequently be useful for them to be given strategies for how to discuss these thoughts with peers in an adaptive way.”

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