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December 5, 2005

Children Know Their Anxiety Better Than Their Parents or Teachers, Study Finds

NORTHAMPTON, Mass.—Children are better than either their parents or teachers at gauging their anxiety, according to a Smith College study that has implications for how therapy is conducted.

Clinicians who have young patients often speak with parents and teachers to help assess the child’s behavior, an approach that can lead to dilemmas when there is not agreement within the feedback.

“This study highlights an important conundrum in therapy for children: Who knows the child best?” said Patricia Marten DiBartolo, associate professor of psychology at Smith College and the study’s lead author. “Most clinicians weigh parents’ input more heavily, but our findings indicate that may not always be the most sound approach.”

DiBartolo's study, published online in Journal of Anxiety Disorders, looked at 32 children in Grades 3 through 5 at a private elementary school. Equal numbers of girls and boys were studied, and a parent and teacher of each child were also studied.

Researchers told each child they would perform the task of reading aloud for five minutes in front of a video camera and that their presentation would later be evaluated based upon performance and behavior.

Then, they asked children to rate how anxious or nervous they expected to be during the upcoming task. Researchers also asked parents and teachers to rate how much anxiety they believed their child or student would experience.

In addition, all three groups completed a standard questionnaire designed to measure children’s anxiety and avoidance across a wide variety of social situations.

Researchers found that children accurately predicted their own anxious feelings and, to some degree, their behaviors during the task, but parents and teachers did not. Neither parents’ nor teachers’ predictions correlated with their children’s behavior.

Previous studies have indicated that clinicians are more likely to base their diagnosis and treatment plans primarily on information from parents, according to DiBartolo. Further, both clinicians and parents believe that parents are better than a child at gauging the youngster’s anxiety.

DiBartolo conducted the study with her former honors student, Amie E. Grills, who is now assistant professor of psychology at the University of Houston, and financial support from the Tomlinson Memorial Fund.

Office of College Relations
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Kristen Cole
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