Parent to Offspring Fear Transmission via Modeling in Early Life: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis

Clin Child Fam Psychol Rev. 2023 Sep;26(3):751-772. doi: 10.1007/s10567-023-00448-1. Epub 2023 Jul 27.


Infants can acquire fears vicariously by observing parents' fearful reactions to novel stimuli in everyday situations (i.e., modeling). To date, no systematic or meta-analytic review examined the role of modeling in parent-child transmission of fear and avoidance in early life. In our systematic review and meta-analysis, we aimed to investigate the effect of modeling parents' fearful reactions on infants' acquisition of fear and avoidance of novel stimuli and explore the moderation of this effect by child behavioral inhibition (BI) and parent trait anxiety. The search conducted in Web Of Science, Pubmed, Embase, and PsycINFO revealed 23 eligible studies for the systematic review and 19 for the meta-analysis. Eligible studies included published studies that measured infant fear and avoidance (infants aged up to 30 months) of novel stimuli following exposure to parental fearful expressions. Meta-analysis findings revealed a significant causal effect of modeling of parental fear on infants' fear [g = .44] and avoidance of novel stimuli [g = .44]. The findings support moderation by child BI on infant avoidance (not fear) acquisition, with the effects being larger for infants with higher BI. However, this moderation was only found, when including both experimental and correlational studies (p > .05), but not when exclusively including experimental studies (p = .17). This meta-analysis provides support for early parent-to-offspring fear transmission: a causal small to medium effect of parents' fearful reactions was shown on infants' fear and avoidance of novel stimuli. Elucidating parent-to-offspring anxiety transmission pathways can inform us about potential fear reduction and prevention strategies.

Keywords: Fear; Infant; Modeling; Parental Anxiety; Temperament; Vicarious Learning.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Systematic Review
  • Review
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Anxiety Disorders
  • Anxiety*
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Inhibition, Psychological
  • Parents*