Risk factors for early childhood anxiety

Research has examined the risk factors and treatment for anxiety in children for middle childhood and adolescent anxiety but given the long-life course of anxiety and depression, early childhood anxiety (affecting 4 – 6 year olds) remains an understudied yet important area. Because the family context is such an important environmental factor in young children’s lives, Pahl, Barrett & Gullo (2012) examined the relationship between mum, dad and child to uncover potential risk factors for early childhood anxiety:

Behavioural Inhibition 

Behavioural inhibition is the consistent tendency to show marked behavioural restrain or fearfulness with unfamiliar people, situations, or events (Kagan, Reznick, & Snidman, 1988). About 15% of typically developing children display behavioural inhibition (Fox et al., 2005). The prediction that behavioural inhibition would directly predict anxiety in children was supported, consistent with a large body of research supporting this association. However, this does not mean that all children with behavioural inhibition will develop these disorders. Degan and Fox (2007) suggested that environmental factors and/or building resilience over time can help to prevent such disorders.

Parental Psychopathology

Family aggregate studies indicated that children of parents with anxiety and depression are at increased risk for developing an anxiety disorder (Beidel & Turner, 1997). This study indicated that mum’s negative affect directly predicted child anxiety. However, it remains unclear whether this was due to genetic or environmental influences or both.

Parenting Stress

Several studies have linked traumatic events, conflict between parents, low social support, daily hassles with parenting, and low socioeconomic status to child internalising difficulties (Cicchetti & Toth, 1998). This study demonstrated that higher levels of parenting stress and anxiety in both mums and dads predicted higher levels of child anxiety. Again, this was consistent with previous findings (eg. Ashford et al., 2008).

Prevention and intervention

Understanding the risk factors for early childhood anxiety help in fine tuning prevention, intervention efforts and managing anxiety depression for young children and their family.

Resilience Kit runs developmentally targeted evidence-based resilience programs for anxiety management in children.


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Biedel, D. C., & Turner, S. M. (1997). At risk for anxiety: psychopathology in the offspring of anxious parents. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 36, 918-924.
Cicchetti, D., & Toth, S. L. (1998). The development of depression in children and adolescents. American Psychologist, 53, 221-241.
Degan, K. A., & Fox, N. A., (2007). Behavioural inhibition and anxiety disorders: multiple levels of a resilience process. Development and Psychopathology, 19, 729-749.
Fox, N. A., Henderson, H. A., Marshall, P. J., Nichols, K. E., & Ghera, M. M. (2005). Behavioural inhibition: linking biology and behaviour within a developmental framework. Annual Review of Psychology, 56, 235-262.
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Kendall, P. C., Settipani, C. A., & Cummings, C. M. (2012). No need to worry: The promising future of child anxiety research. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, 41(1), 103-115.
Pahl, K. M., Barrett, P. M., & Gullo, M. J. (2012). Examining potential risk factors for anxiety in early childhood. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 26(2), 311–320.