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Close friendships between children can influence responses to fear

New research led by the University of East Anglia shows that close friends may influence how school-aged children think about danger.

The study investigated whether close friends affect each other’s fear responses, both in terms of beliefs and what they would do to avoid potential danger.

The findings, published in the December issue of the journal Behaviour Research and Therapy, show for the first time that children in close friendships exhibit shared patterns of fear-related thoughts, and that they influence each other’s fears when discussing these issues together.

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.

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.”

An important finding 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 therapy and may be useful information for parents concerned that exposure to more anxious children within group-based therapy may increase their child’s anxiety.

They also suggest that school-based interventions aiming to reduce anxiety in primary school-aged children could instruct pairs of close friends to discuss and resolve their worries in a positive manner with each other.

The study involved 242 British school children (106 boys, 136 girls), aged seven to 10 years old, who completed questionnaires to measure anxiety and fear beliefs. They were then shown pictures of two Australian marsupials – the Cuscus and the Quoll – that would be unfamiliar to them. They were read two versions of information about the animals, one ambiguous and one which described them as threatening, after which their fear responses towards each animal were assessed. Next, pairs of close friends (40 pairs of boys, 55 pairs of girls, and 26 boy-girl pairs) discussed their feelings about the animals, and their fear responses were measured again.

The study also explored whether the children’s avoidance behaviours were affected by the discussion. They were given a map showing an enclosure, with one of the animals situated at one end of a path and the opening of the enclosure at the other. The children were asked to draw a cross on the path to show where they would like to be in the enclosure, with avoidance behaviour measured as the distance from the cross to the animal.

After completing all the tasks the children were presented with real information about the Cuscus and the Quoll and shown a short video about each of them.

Results showed that children influenced each other’s thoughts following the discussion; from being given the information about the animals to the discussion their fear responses became more similar and close friends’ fear responses in the information task significantly predicted children’s fear responses in the discussion task.

Gender pair type predicted change in children’s fear responses over time. Children in boy-boy pairs showed a significant increase in fear responses following the discussion; their fear level became more in line with that of other gender pairs for that task, while those in girl-girl pairs showed a significant decrease in their fear beliefs, at least when threatening information was given. Differences in anxiety level between close friends did not affect change in fear responses over time.

‘Do you think I should be scared? The effect of peer discussion on children's fears’, Jinnie Ooi, Helen Dodd, Bobby Stuijfzand, Judi Walsh and Suzanne Broeren, is published in Behaviour Research and Therapy.

Image: iStock/szefei

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