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In social situations, mothers generally play a more important role than fathers in shaping their children’s behaviour, according to a study conducted by Susan Bögels, professor at the University of Amsterdam (UvA).

In social situations, mothers generally play a more important role than fathers in shaping their children’s behaviour, according to a study conducted by Susan Bögels, professor at the University of Amsterdam (UvA). Only in the case of children with social anxiety, is the father’s behaviour more influential. The findings of this unique experimental study have been published in The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

For the study, Bögels teamed up with fellow researchers Stevens and Majdandžic, to look at how 144 children responded when confronted with socially ambiguous situations. In each case, the children were asked to imagine themselves in a particular scenario. An example: ‘Imagine that you go to a party with your parents. As soon as you enter, a hush falls over the room and everyone looks at you curiously. Your father/mother blushes and quickly ducks into a corner of the room / cheerfully greets everyone’. The children then indicated on a scale of one to five whether they felt safe or, instead, anxious or shy. ‘The great thing about this method is that we can measure all these situations’, Bögels explains. ‘What happens if a mother shows avoidance behaviour or, conversely, if she’s full of confidence, and what happens if a father behaves in those ways?’ Both parents and children filled out questionnaires about the degree of social anxiety they experience in their own lives, with a second questionnaire for the children asking them to rate their parents’ levels of social anxiety.

Theory doesn’t hold up

Prior to starting the study, Bögels expected that the influence of the father would be greater than that of the mother, regardless of the degree of social anxiety in the child. According to her initial theory (see also the link to the article ‘Does father know best?’), fathers play a crucial, evolutionarily determined role in the development of anxiety in children, with children tending to turn to their fathers first in intimidating situations, and his response (whether anxious or self-confident) having a determining impact on the behaviour of the child. But that theory is not borne out by the experiments, at least not for the majority of children. Instead, it showed that children with low and normal anxiety levels look to their mothers for social referencing; only high-anxiety children attach greater significance to signals sent by their fathers. ‘In hindsight we may be able to explain these findings by saying that the role fathers and mothers play appears to be different. Mothers curb children with little or insufficient social anxiety, whereas fathers actually stimulate anxious children to get over their fears.’ It is an elegant mechanism, but also has drawbacks. ‘An anxious mother can transfer her own fear onto her non-anxious child, for whom she is the primary role model. And if a father of a socially anxious child also exhibits anxious behaviour himself, that’s likely to have an even more negative effect on the development of anxiety in that child.’

Evolutionarily determined

If mothers play a definitive role in the social arena, as this study suggests, what might that tell us about other types of fears and phobias, such as a fear of getting lost, fear of spiders and dogs, fear of heights and so on? ‘In these evolutionarily determined fears, the role of the father may actually be dominant’, the professor speculates. Bögels plans to test this hypothesis in her new Vici research project.