Attachment Shapes How Children Learn Fear From Parents

a child showing attachment and fear

A new study from the University of Montreal identifies the factors that promote children’s observational fear learning.

During childhood, many fears begin to appear. The scientific literature on this is quite straightforward: fear is commonly acquired through observation, particularly in children who imitate their parents and learn to fear a stimulus without direct exposure to an aversive situation. A child may be afraid of dogs, for instance, because they saw their mother being bitten by a dog.

According to the study’s findings, attachment and physiological concordance play a role in observational fear learning. In particular, children with a less secure attachment relationship and a high level of physiological concordance with their parents are more likely to experience fear in response to stimuli to which their parents also exhibit fearful responses.

When two people interact closely, their physiological signals, such as heartbeat and sweating, are synchronized. This is what physiological concordance is. Both romantic couples and families with young children frequently experience this phenomenon.

Learning Fear by Watching

Seeing someone else react with fear sends a powerful message.

According to a 2017 mouse study, observing other people’s fear may even alter how information travels through the brain. Not only was the information flow affected by stress, but it was also communicated through social cues like body language, sound, and smell.

The present study was conducted by Alexe Bilodeau-Houle for her master’s thesis under the supervision of Marie-France Marin, an associate professor in the University of Montreal Department of Psychiatry and Addictology and a researcher at the Centre de recherche de l’Institut universitaire en santé mentale de Montréal.

84 pairs of parents and kids were asked to play a game by the research team. First, the parents were put through a fear-conditioning protocol in which the appearance of one color (blue) was connected to a very slight electric shock while the appearance of another color (yellow) was not.

The children took the same test as their parents in a subsequent phase of observational learning after watching the recording of this session, but naturally without the electric shock when the color blue appeared. Electrodermal activity (sweating of the skin), a sign of fear, was monitored in both parents and children throughout the experiment.

Insecurity and Synchronized Reactions

After that, the kids answered a questionnaire that allowed researchers to gauge how attached they were to their parents. The team compared the graphic curves seen in the parent’s electrodermal activity during fear conditioning with those of the child during the observational learning phase as a way to gauge the physiological concordance between parent and child.

“The more the parent and child showed synchronized physiological reactions, the greater the child’s fear when it was his or her turn to take part in the experiment. But this only occurred when the child’s relationship with the observed parent was insecure; otherwise the physiological concordance did not seem to affect the child’s learning of fear,”

said Bilodeau-Houle.

In this regard, Bilodeau-Houle added that physiological concordance in parent-child dyads is crucial for the control of children’s emotions. Depending on the nature of the attachment relationship and the family environment, concordance may have different effects on children’s developmental outcomes.

For instance, better self-regulation skills in children are associated with high parent-child physiological concordance in healthy family settings, whereas this association is not always present in dysfunctional families.

Attachment and Threat Detection

The findings imply that a child who is highly synchronized with his or her parent in the context of a relationship of insecure attachment may be more likely to pick up fear from watching the parent.

Children’s fear can also be influenced by their attachment relationships with their parents.

“Attachment and threat detection systems are intimately linked. When children are faced with a threat, their attachment system is activated. This activation causes them to get closer to their caregiver, who serves as their protector and will then help them modulate their fear,”

said Bilodeau-Houle.

As a result, children with insecure relationships with their parents are more likely to experience physiological fear when exposed to threat-related stimuli.

So far, Bilodeau-protocol Houle’s has only been tested on healthy families. However, she and her colleagues are also interested in using observational fear learning with children whose parents have experienced a traumatic event and may have developed anxiety or post-traumatic symptoms.

“Children who have a parent or parents living with one of these disorders are at greater risk of developing this type of pathology in turn. But it remains to be seen whether observational fear learning can contribute to the development of fear-related psychopathologies in these children,”

said Bilodeau-Houle.

A longitudinal study design could shed light on such psychopathologies. It should be remembered, however, that fear learning is an adaptive mechanism.

  1. Alexe Bilodeau-Houle, Simon Morand-Beaulieu, Valérie Bouchard, Marie-France Marin, Parent–child physiological concordance predicts stronger observational fear learning in children with a less secure relationship with their parent, Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, Volume 226, 2023, 105553, SSN 0022-0965,