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Experts say children tend to pick up traits from the parent of the same gender. Westend61/Getty Images
  • Researchers say anxiety disorders are more likely to be transmitted from fathers to sons as well as from mothers to daughters.
  • They say that’s because children tend to pick up traits and model behavior after the parent of the same biological sex.
  • Experts say this trend should serve as a reminder to all adults that children are watching closely what grown-ups say and do.

Anxiety disorders may be transmitted from mothers to daughters as well as from fathers to sons.

That’s the conclusion of a recent study in which researchers report that anxiety may have a pattern of “sex-specific transmission.”

“Anxiety disorder in a same-sex parent but not in an opposite-sex parent was significantly associated with a lifetime diagnosis of any anxiety disorders in offspring,” the study authors wrote.

“An association between the same-sex parent’s anxiety disorder and anxiety disorders in offspring suggests an environmental mechanism, such as modeling,” they added.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 5.8 million children between 3 and 17 years of age received a diagnosis of anxiety between 2016 and 2019.

While it is common for children to have some worries and fears, the CDC states that if the concerns interfere with daily life this may be due to an anxiety disorder. This can be a phobia, social anxiety, separation anxiety, panic disorder, or generalized anxiety.

CDC data from 2019 found that 15% of adults experienced anxiety that was mild, moderate or severe during a two-week reporting period. Women were more likely than men to experience anxiety.

The researchers of the recent study conducted interviews with 398 children, 221 mothers, and 237 fathers.

They reported that anxiety disorders in a parent of the same sex were associated with a slight increase in the rate of anxiety disorders in same-sex offspring.

Anxiety disorders in a parent of the opposite sex did not have the same association.

Being in the same house with a parent of the same sex who didn’t have an anxiety disorder was also associated with lower rates of anxiety disorders among offspring of the same sex.

Dr. Carla Marie Manly, a clinical psychologist based in California, says the results of the study aren’t surprising.

“Although both fathers and mothers have a profound impact on their children, developmental psychology has long focused on the same-sex parent’s distinct emotional and mental impact on the child. Given that young children’s brains are highly impressionable, it makes perfect sense that children would ‘absorb’ anxiety, particularly from the same-sex parent,” she told Healthline.

“On a neurobiological level, young children’s brains are formed and changed by everything they encounter, including their parents’ behaviors and environment,” Manly added. “Although children are surely impacted by positive experiences, they are most certainly impacted by negative stimuli such as an anxious parent’s behaviors. As such, although a young child will not consciously adopt a parent’s modeled anxious attitudes and behaviors, the parent’s patterns will be noted and copied nonetheless.”

Researchers said anxiety disorders typically begin early in life and having a parent with an anxiety disorder is an established risk factor.

The study authors say the risk could for a variety of reasons.

“This association could be attributable to the parents passing on genetic risk to their offspring and the impact parents have on their children’s environment. Although a number of genetic variants associated with anxiety disorders have been identified,some studies have concluded that the association of environment with the transmission of anxiety from parents to children is greater than that of the genetics,” they wrote.

If the role of same-sex parents does play a greater role in a child’s development of anxiety, the study authors argue this could be because children model their parents and learn from them.

Shane Owens, Ph.D., a behavioral and cognitive psychologist in New York, says children will copy their parents’ example from a young age.

“Kids look up to parents and are often reinforced for taking on qualities of their same-sex parent,” he told Healthline. “Most boys can remember being attended to and praised for walking around in their father’s shoes or for sitting and watching the game with their dad. Most girls remember being praised for trying on their mom’s shoes or jewelry or asking to use their makeup.”

“This extends to other behaviors as well, especially in times of crisis. A boy experiencing anxiety will act like his dad does; a girl experiencing anxiety will mimic her mother’s response to similar circumstances,” Owens added.

This trend can be a reminder for parents.

“All adults should understand that what they do in the presence of a child will likely be mimicked,” Owens explained. “Gender roles remain strong. Kids pay close attention to the parent they believe is the one they’re supposed to mimic. Because modeling behavior has the strongest effect on what kids do, it’s not surprising that sons of anxious dads and daughters of anxious mothers behave in anxious ways.”

The researchers found that the lifetime rate of anxiety disorders was lowest among children who had two parents without anxiety disorders.

Children who had one parent with an anxiety disorder had an intermediate lifetime risk of anxiety disorder while children with two parents with an anxiety disorder had the highest rate.

All of the experts who spoke with Healthline say this makes sense.

“We spend the most time in our early developmental phase around our parents. We passively internalize so many of their mannerisms and characteristics that it makes perfect sense that anxiety would be more prominent in individuals where it was present in both parents,” Gregory Nawalanic, a clinical psychologist at The University of Kansas Health System, told Healthline.

“Children look to their parents as anchors of stability. Imagine the message that is sent and internalized by the child who sees their parents consistently in a state of alarm or fear. It colors the world around them as a threatening place and confirms their age-appropriate fear of the unknown rather than dispelling it and communicating calm and safety,” he added.