Research looks at anxiety in kids

New research examines ‘fearful dispositions’ in children.
Thursday, August 21, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 2:11 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 7, 2008

Children at Columbia Montessori School might go barefoot in their daily activities today, or they might sit together observing nature on the playground.

“The child is encouraged to take care of as many things as they are capable of doing themselves,” said school director and MU psychologist Nancy Davis.

Such surroundings, Davis said, promote self-confidence in the child, which might reduce anxiety. But she also stressed that all young children, regardless of their environment, usually have some kind of anxiety response to changes in routine. Major transitions such as starting preschool or kindergarten, can bring about particularly distressed reactions — crying, shyness, whining — although they typically don’t last long.

Unlike the initial separation anxiety young children experience with these kinds of transitions, new research by MU developmental psychologist Kristin Buss suggests that children with “fearful dispositions” are at risk for developing social anxiety disorders and depression.

These children, unlike their peers, have difficulty adjusting to their new environments long after a routine has been established in their daily activities.

“A little bit of anxiety and nerves is normal,” Buss said. “But if the child is still experiencing extreme anxiety in a situation where there should be familiarity, there might be a problem.”

Buss and other MU researchers studied

2-year-olds’ reactions to stimuli designed for specific behavioral responses. In two sets of experiments, the study examined fearful responses in these children and also sampled stress hormone-release.

Children who had significant levels of the hormone cortisol, an indicator of high stress, in their saliva also demonstrated “extremely fearful” behavior in the experiments. Buss thinks these personality responses indicate a connection to an inherited predisposition for specific behaviors.

Although the research is in its early stages, Buss is challenging conventional methodology by arguing for newer methods to spot children who might be predisposed to anxiety disorders. She plans to follow up her current study with another one in 2005. This time, the children in the initial study will be researched as they enter kindergarten.

She recommends that parents, while not overdoing it, should observe their children’s reactions after they’ve settled into new environments to determine the relative stress response.

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