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Professor contributes to research on effect of anxiety in parents on young children

Eric Lee | Staff Photographer
Jody Ganiban, a professor of clinical and development psychology, participated in a study that examined whether anxiety in children is an environmental or a genetic phenomenon.

A psychology professor contributed to research showing how both a child’s environment and genetics can affect the emergence of anxiety.

Jody Ganiban, a professor of clinical and development psychology, participated in research that will be published in May on the chances of parents passing on their anxiety to their children. Ganiban said her project studied parents’ effects on children developing anxiety during early childhood and whether these effects are best explained by environmental or genetic processes, finding that parent anxiety has a small effect on the development of childhood anxiety.

The researchers tracked 561 adopted children and looked for the emergence of anxiety when the subjects were between 18 months and four and a half years of age. The study found parent anxiety had a “trivial” effect on children developing anxiety from 18 months of age through preschool, with anxious mothers and fathers’ child-raising practices having a roughly equivalent influence.

“Since our study sample includes adopted children, along with their adopted parents and biological parents, we are able to explore if parental influences on mental health are independent of children’s heritable risks, and if parenting amplifies or dampens the expression of heritable risks,” Ganiban said in an email.

She said Andy Field, the study’s lead author, designed the project to include adopted children with both their adopted parents and biological parents to explore whether children developed anxiety from environmental impacts or from genetic inheritance.

“It is also important to note that very few studies have explored the importance of fathers in the development of child anxiety,” Ganiban said.

Leslie Leve, an alumni faculty professor of education at the University of Oregon and a contributor to the study, said parental anxiety may influence whether their children will become anxious, but many other factors not measured in the study could also play a role in determining incidences of anxiety disorders.

She said the research team plans to follow up with the same children at the ages of 11, 13 and 15 to learn more about how early childhood anxiety levels predict the condition during adolescence. Leve said the team has been “fortunate” to have received funding from the National Institutes of Health for the past 18 years.

“This allowed us to start the study initially in 2002 when the children were not even yet born and to follow them across development,” Leve said in an email. “Some of them are now 17 years old!”

Researchers used the NIH funding to design the study, recruit families, collect and code the data, compensate families for their time and disseminate finances to research and practitioner audiences, Leve said.

“This study shows that we need to keep in mind that just because a mother or father is anxious, that doesn’t mean that the child will also be anxious,” Leve said. “There are lots of other factors not measured in this study that also play a role. It also serves as a reminder that it’s important to study both mothers and fathers when there are two parents in the home.”

Leve said most of the project’s researchers have been studying anxiety together for more than 20 years and were introduced to one another by their graduate school advisers. She said the research team eventually expanded to include faculty from around the world – some of whom were co-authors of this research paper – because the unique nature of the study drew psychology scholars to the project.

“This happened in part because our study is quite rare, and it can draw the attention of researchers who are interested in understanding how genes and the environment work together to influence child development,” Leve said.

She said the researchers first discussed the original study design in 1995. She said they did not receive NIH funding until 2002, and each of the papers they have written has taken about two years from conception to publication.

“Doing this type of longitudinal research with families is hard work, takes a really long time and takes a team effort to be successful,” Leve said. “I feel fortunate to be part of such a strong and collaborative team!”

Jenae Neiderhiser, a professor of psychology and human development and family studies at Penn State University and a contributor to the study, said she first met Ganiban in 1994 when she began working at GW and they collaborated at the Center for Family Research. She said they began working with Leve after joining CFR Director David Reiss’ Early Growth and Development study on environmental influences on child health outcomes.

“We have a number of team members, graduate students, postdoctoral researchers and faculty at different universities who are interested in understanding the development of anxiety symptoms in children who will continue to examine questions related to this publication,” Neiderhiser said.

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