Cross-generational influences on childhood anxiety disorders: pathways and mechanisms

J Neural Transm (Vienna). 2016 Sep;123(9):1053-67. doi: 10.1007/s00702-016-1565-y. Epub 2016 May 4.


Anxiety disorders are common across the lifespan, cause severe distress and impairment, and usually have their onset in childhood. Substantial clinical and epidemiological research has demonstrated the existence of links between anxiety and its disorders in children and parents. Research on the pathways and mechanisms underlying these links has pointed to both behavioral and biological systems. This review synthesizes and summarizes several major aspects of this research. Behavioral systems include vicarious learning, social referencing, and modeling of parental anxiety; overly protective or critical parenting styles; and aspects of parental responses to child anxiety including family accommodation of the child's symptoms. Biological systems include aspects of the prenatal environment affected by maternal anxiety, development and functioning of the oxytocinergic system, and genetic and epigenetic transmission. Implications for the prevention and treatment of child anxiety disorders are discussed, including the potential to enhance child anxiety treatment outcomes through biologically informed parent-based interventions.

Keywords: Anxiety disorders; Child; Genetics; Mother–child relations; Oxytocin.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anxiety Disorders* / etiology
  • Anxiety Disorders* / genetics
  • Anxiety Disorders* / psychology
  • Child
  • Environment
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Oxytocin / metabolism
  • Parent-Child Relations*
  • Parenting / psychology*
  • Parents / psychology*


  • Oxytocin