The social learning of threat and safety in the family: Parent-to-child transmission of social fears via verbal information

Evin Aktar, Cosima A. Nimphy, Bram van Bockstaele, Koraly Pérez-Edgar

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Parental verbal threat (vs. safety) information regarding the social world may impact a child's fear responses, evident in subjective, behavioral, cognitive, and physiological indices of fear. In this study, primary caregivers provided standardized verbal threat or safety information to their child (N = 68, M = 5.27 years; 34 girls) regarding two strangers in the lab. Following this manipulation, children reported fear beliefs for each stranger. Physiological and behavioral reactions were recorded as children engaged with the two strangers (who were blind to their characterization) in a social interaction task. Child attention to the strangers was measured in a visual search task. Parents also reported their own, and their child's, social anxiety symptoms. Children reported more fear for the stranger paired with threat information, but no significant differences were found in observed child fear, attention, or heart rate. Higher social anxiety symptoms on the side of the parents and the children exacerbated the effect of parental verbal threat on observed fear. Our findings reveal a causal influence of parental verbal threat information only for child-reported fear and highlight the need to further refine the conditions under which acquired fear beliefs persist and generalize to behavior/physiology or get overruled by nonaversive real-life encounters.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere22257
JournalDevelopmental psychobiology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 2022

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Developmental Neuroscience
  • Developmental Biology
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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