Given the long-lasting detrimental effects of internalizing symptoms, there is great need for detecting early risk markers. One promising marker is freezing behavior. Whereas initial freezing reactions are essential for coping with threat, prolonged freezing has been associated with internalizing psychopathology. However, it remains unknown whether early life alterations in freezing reactions predict changes in internalizing symptoms during adolescent development. In a longitudinal study (N = 116), we tested prospectively whether observed freezing in infancy predicted the development of internalizing symptoms from childhood through late adolescence (until age 17). Both longer and absent infant freezing behavior during a standard challenge (robot-confrontation task) were associated with internalizing symptoms in adolescence. Specifically, absent infant freezing predicted a relative increase in internalizing symptoms consistently across development from relatively low symptom levels in childhood to relatively high levels in late adolescence. Longer infant freezing also predicted a relative increase in internalizing symptoms, but only up until early adolescence. This latter effect was moderated by peer stress and was followed by a later decrease in internalizing symptoms. The findings suggest that early deviations in defensive freezing responses signal risk for internalizing symptoms and may constitute important markers in future stress vulnerability and resilience studies.
Keywords: 5-HTTLPR; adolescence; defensive stress response; infancy; internalizing symptoms; longitudinal analysis.
© 2018 John Wiley & Sons Ltd.