Anxiety disorders may spread from mothers to daughters, fathers to sons

Anxiety disorders may spread from mothers to daughters, fathers to sons

July 12 (UPI) — Mothers to daughters, fathers to sons: That’s how anxiety disorders may be transmitted, according to a new study.

While anxiety disorders are known to run in families, it remains unclear how genes and the environment may contribute to onset of the condition — and no previous studies have explored the idea of mother-daughter, father-son transmission.

So, researchers said in a study published Tuesday in JAMA Network Open, patterns of “sex-specific transmission” of anxiety may help illustrate how parents pass anxiety disorders down to their children.

“Having a same-sex parent with an anxiety disorder increases the likelihood of the child having an anxiety disorder more so than having an opposite-sex parent with anxiety,” Barbara Pavlova, a clinical psychologist and the study’s lead author, told UPI in an email.

“I would like to highlight that sharing the household with a same-sex parent … who is not anxious may protect the child against developing anxiety,” said Pavlova, assistant professor in Dalhousie University’s Department of Psychiatry in Canada.

“So, for sons, for example, having a father who is not anxious at home, may be protective against anxiety.

She added: “The results suggest that children learn anxious behavior from their parents. This means that transmission of anxiety from parents to children may be preventable.”

Pavlova, who is part of the Nova Scotia Health Authority’s Mood Disorders Program in Halifax, said the same pattern of transmission could hold true for other mental health issues, adding “It appears that this relationship is disorder-specific.

“Actually,” she added, “our previous findings suggest an opposite pattern of transmission of psychotic symptoms; i.e., the child was more likely to develop psychotic symptoms if their opposite sex-parent had mental illness.”

Anxiety disorders are the most common psychiatric disorders, and often begin early in life, the researchers said.

Across the United States, more than 15% of adults told a 2019 national survey that they had experienced mild, moderate or severe symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder in the past two weeks, according to the latest available data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC describes generalized anxiety disorder as excessive, difficult-to-control worry that is accompanied by physical symptoms that include restlessness, easily triggered fatigue, difficulty concentrating, irritability, muscle tension or sleep disturbance.

In addition, researchers pointed out there is “social anxiety disorder, separation anxiety disorder, panic disorder, agoraphobia, simple phobia, anxiety disorder not otherwise specified, obsessive/compulsive disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder.”

The researchers conducted interviews between 2013 and 2020, exploring the psychiatric diagnoses of both biological parents of nearly 400 boys and girls in Nova Scotia, Canada.

The children averaged about 11 years old, and had a familial risk of mood disorders. Some parents lived in the same household with their offspring and some did not.

Researchers found that those children with a same-sex parent with an anxiety disorder were likelier to have the same condition than if their opposite-sex parent had it.

They also found that children living with a same-sex parent without anxiety was associated with lower rates of offspring anxiety. However, the presence of an opposite-sex parent without anxiety did not have the same effect.

Out of the 398 offspring participating in the study, researchers said 108 of them, or 27.1%, had a diagnosis of one or more anxiety disorders.

This included generalized anxiety disorder (7.8%), social anxiety disorder (6.3%), separation anxiety disorder (8.6%), specific phobia (8%) and anxiety disorder not otherwise specified (5%).

In addition, 11 offspring (2.8%) met the criteria for obsessive compulsive disorder, but only a handful of children met the diagnostic criteria for panic disorder, agoraphobia or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Rates of anxiety disorders increased with the children’s age, from 14.1% in those under age 9 to 51.8% in those older than 15, the researchers noted.

According to the study, the rates of lifetime anxiety disorders were lowest (23.7%) in the children of two parents without such disorders, middling (28.1%) if one parent had an anxiety disorder, and highest (41.4%) if two parents had anxiety disorders.

The scientists also explored the role of parents’ mood disorders.

The rate of lifetime anxiety disorders was lowest among children of parents with schizophrenia at 6.3%, and highest among offspring of parents with bipolar disorder at 36%.

The rates of anxiety in the children of parents with depression did not differ significantly from those whose parents had no major mood or psychotic disorder.

Upon further analysis, the researchers concluded that parental anxiety disorders were significantly associated with increased rates of lifetime diagnoses of anxiety disorders in their offspring, but parents’ mood disorders were not.

Researchers said these findings suggest the possible role of environmental factors, “such as modeling and vicarious learning,” in the transmission of anxiety from parents to their children.

“We know from previous research that children are likely to model their parent’s anxious behavior,” Pavlova said.

“For example, if their parent is afraid of spiders and screams when they see one, the child is likely to conclude that spiders are dangerous and react to them in a similar way.”

She added: “Our results suggest that children may be more likely to learn anxious behavior if it is being displayed by their same-sex parent,” meaning sons learning their fathers’ behavior and daughters learning their mothers’ behavior.

Pavlova said she is not surprised by the study’s findings.

“The finding that children are more likely to develop an anxiety disorder if the same-sex parent has it is novel,” she said. “However, there are other streams of evidence pointing to the importance of environment in the transmission of anxiety disorders from parents to children.”

Asked whether she feels fairly confident, given this study, that treating parents’ anxiety may protect their children from developing an anxiety disorder, Pavolva said, “We are working on testing this hypothesis.”