New Voices: Parenting next door to the bogeyman

Suzanne Dash with the latest in our series for budding writers (see for more information)

Psychologists do not work in a vacuum – our lives outside of work shape our research interests. Many psychologists have a vested interest in understanding more about their research area. In my case, living in a disadvantaged neighbourhood sparked an interest in conducting research on the emotional consequences of living in such areas, in particular, the consequences on child anxiety.

Partway through my PhD studies, the breakdown of cohabiting bliss meant I needed somewhere new to live. As a result of my meagre studentship income, I spent 18 months living in a studio flat with no heating and an empty fridge, in a deprived part of a British city (cue violins). But being kept awake at night by the cold and the growls of my stomach were the least of my domestic issues. I lived next door to the bogeyman.

OK, not the actual bogeyman, but definitely a close relative. He had a tendency to indulge in all-night raves and drunken rages. Then there were the weeks when he sublet his studio flat to six strangers (yes six, in one studio flat, for weeks). Oh, and the fateful day that I came home to find genuine human excrement on my doorstep. This made for an interesting phone call to the letting agent…

Around that time, I started working on a project examining mechanisms of parental transmission of anxiety. While mulling over this area of research, I thought about what it would be like to bring up a child while living in my street. On more than one occasion my
heart pounded in my chest when my neighbour’s late-night guests mistakenly pressed my door buzzer. If my neighbour had the capability to reduce this 20-something to trembling, what could this environment do to a child? And what steps would parents take to protect their children in such environments? Could styles of parenting in disadvantaged neighbourhoods influence childhood anxiety?

The significance of child anxiety
Anxiety disorders are common in childhood, with estimates ranging from 2.6 per cent to 41.2 per cent depending on the assessment criteria (Cartwright-Hatton et al., 2006). Experiencing high levels of anxiety during childhood can have lasting consequences, predicting heightened anxiety in adolescence (Bittner et al., 2007) and into adulthood (Woodward & Fergusson, 2001).

Undoubtedly, both genetic and environmental factors play a role in who becomes an anxious child, but my bogeyman neighbour has led me to focus my current research endeavours on a particular childhood environmental influence: poverty. Childhood poverty is defined by the Institute of Fiscal Studies as a child growing up in a household with an income that is 60 per cent below the median. It is estimated that there are 2.6 million children growing up living in poverty in the UK, with estimates rising to 3.8 million when calculations are based on household income after housing costs (End Child Poverty, 2011).

Children growing up in poverty are more likely to live in poor-quality housing, experience hunger and illness, and perform badly at school (Ridge, 2011). What is more, there is a relationship between living in poverty and living in unsafe neighbourhoods. Data from the British Crime Survey shows that individuals living in the most deprived areas are more likely to be victims of crime than individuals living in the least deprived areas, who are least likely to be victims of crime (Higgins et al., 2010). Unpleasant (bogeyman) neighbours can of course be found in any environment, but people living in deprived areas are more likely to report having antisocial neighbours (MORI, 2003).

It is particularly important to explore disadvantaged neighbourhoods in the context of understanding and treating childhood anxiety because children living in poverty are at an increased risk of developing anxiety disorders (e.g. Eamon, 2000). Interestingly, while children who have an anxious parent are more likely to have problems with anxiety, Beidel and Turner (1997) showed that this effect was more pronounced for children living in low-income families compared with children living in middle- or high-income families. What is it about living in a disadvantaged area that leads to higher rates of childhood anxiety disorders?

Parenting in disadvantaged neighbourhoods
One possible explanation for the higher rates of childhood anxiety disorders in disadvantaged areas is that this environment changes parenting behaviours. Anxious behaviours in unsafe environments can be advantageous. For example, Eilam et al. (2011) propose that ‘anxiety and the consequent precautionary behaviour are adaptive and vital since they enable an individual to practice defensive means in total physical safety’ (p.1002). Environmental pressures may cause parents to act in certain ways to try to protect their children from the increased risk of threats that exist in disadvantaged neighbourhoods. While these parenting behaviours are entirely understandable given the context of an increased risk of harm, these behaviours may increase child anxiety.

I now turn to three aspects of parenting that have been associated with the development of child anxiety and may be particularly prevalent in disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

Overprotective parenting occurs when a parent takes excessive measures to prevent their child from engaging in situations or behaviours that may or may not lead to their child being harmed.

In order to examine whether overprotective parenting leads to greater child anxiety, de Wilde and Rapee (2008) experimentally manipulated how controlling parents were when their child encountered a social threat. Children were asked to prepare a short speech (a situation most children, and adults for that matter, find a bit scary) and their mothers were either asked to wholly intervene in the preparation (highly controlling parenting) or to only assist if the child asked for help (low controlling parenting). Children whose mothers had been overly controlling were more anxious about the speech than children whose mothers had been minimally controlling.

Negative verbal information
A large body of research indicates that providing children with negative verbal information increases anxiety (Muris & Field, 2010). Consequently, a possible explanation for the increased prevalence of anxiety disorders in children living in disadvantaged environments is that parents may be inclined to provide more negative information in threatening environments, in order to educate their children about neighbourhood risks. Parents may believe ‘knowledge is power’ and that this will protect their children – although as a very wise mother (and psychologist) said to me, the risk of her child developing an anxiety disorder through hearing lots of bad things about the world was much higher than the risk of her child being abducted by a stranger. Anxious parents living in unsafe neighbourhoods may find it harder to disguise their own fears than non-anxious parents, and may verbalise worries in front of their children. This may be behind the finding that the children of parents who have difficulties with anxiety and live in low-income areas are at an even greater risk of developing an anxiety disorder (Beidel & Turner, 1997).

Harsh parenting
Pinderhughes et al. (2007) found that parents living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods use harsher discipline and greater amounts of restrictive control. They suggest this may be due to the parents themselves experiencing high levels of stress, which reduces their resources to provide warm, nurturing, and consistent parenting, or it may be an intentional strategy employed to prepare children for life in a dangerous neighbourhood. Harsh parenting has been identified as a mediator between socio-economic disadvantage and child anxiety (McLoyd, 1998). What’s more, the relationship between harsh parenting and internalising problems (such as anxiety) becomes stronger as neighbourhood danger increases (Callahan et al., 2011).

There are some indicators that children from low socio-economic status families fare poorer in therapy (e.g. Cromley & Lavigne, 2008), perhaps because therapy doesn’t traditionally undo societal inequalities. In an ideal world, policy and funds would tackle eliminating the roots of disadvantaged neighbourhoods, but we live in the real world. A more efficient approach may be to target working with groups of parents living in disadvantaged areas to help them manage the (small but real) increased risks to their children, and to learn behavioural techniques (such as those used by Cartwright-Hatton et al., 2011) to help minimise their child’s risk of developing problematic anxiety.

I hope that research I am conducting with colleagues at Sussex will clarify the role of various parenting behaviours in childhood anxiety in disadvantaged neighbourhoods. It is especially important to understand the context of child anxiety in disadvantaged neighbourhoods given that research indicates such children may have poorer outcomes in current therapeutic interventions. When working with anxious families in the clinic, researching anxiety, or informing policy, let us not forget the children with the bogeyman for a neighbour.

Suzanne Dash is a postdoctoral research assistant at the University
of Sussex
[email protected]


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