Child Safety Signal Learning in the Context of Parental Worry, Overprotection, PTSD, and Depression
Jerud, Alissa Beth
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Individuals with anxiety-related psychopathology often have impairments in safety signal learning, which is thought to be a biomarker of anxiety-related disorders, and which manifests in difficulty inhibiting fear to safety cues (e.g., Jovanovic et al. 2010). Accordingly, one way in which parental anxiety-related psychopathology may affect a child’s development is by changing the nature of pivotal, early parent-child learning experiences related to identifying what is safe and what is not. This study used the well-established conditional discrimination (AX+/BX-) paradigm to explore safety signal learning in 8-11 year-old children in relation to parental worry, overprotection, PTSD, and depression. This paradigm assesses fear-potentiated startle (FPS) to conditioned stimuli (CS) that are either paired with an aversive air puff to the throat (AX+), or that are never paired with the air puff (BX-). FPS to the threat cue (A) presented in conjunction with the safety cue (B) in the absence of the air puff (AB) serves as the critical test of safety signal learning. Dependent variables were FPS to the AX+ and AB trials, as well as retrospective expectancy ratings of whether the air puff had been paired with each CS. Children whose parents were higher in overprotective parenting had higher FPS to the safety transfer cue (AB) than to the safety cue, suggesting impaired safety signal learning. Additionally, higher parental depression was associated with lower initial child FPS to both the danger and safety cues, suggesting a blunting effect of parental depression on child fear responding. By contrast, children whose parents reported higher symptoms of worry did not differ from children whose parents reported lower symptoms of worry in FPS to the danger, safety, or safety transfer cues. Parental PTSD was also not strongly associated with child fear responding or inhibition. Further, children whose parents were lower and higher in worry or overprotective parenting did not differ in cognitively discriminating among the danger, safety, and safety transfer cues. This study provides valuable information about fear inhibition during the middle childhood years, suggesting that impairments in safety signal learning are specifically related to overprotective parenting. Overprotective parenting may thus be a viable target for the prevention and treatment of anxiety-related disorders in children.
- Psychology