Early Social Fear Predicts Kindergarteners’ Socially Anxious Behaviors: Direct Associations, Moderation by Inhibitory Control, and Differences From Nonsocial Fear

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Abstract

Although social and nonsocial fear are discernable as early as preschool, little is known about their distinct associations with developmental outcomes. For example, fear has been identified as a predictor of social anxiety problems, but no work has examined whether social and nonsocial fear make independent contributions to risk. We investigated the extent to which early social and nonsocial fear were associated with socially anxious behaviors during kindergarten. To do this, we identified distinct trajectories of social and nonsocial fear across toddlerhood and preschool. Only social fear was associated with socially anxious behaviors at ages 2 and 5. Because the ability to regulate fear contributes to the degree to which fearful children are at risk for anxiety problems, we also tested whether an early developing aspect of self-regulation modulated associations between early fear and kindergarten socially anxious behaviors. Specifically, we tested whether inhibitory control differentially modulated associations between early levels of social and nonsocial fear and socially anxious behaviors during kindergarten. Associations between trajectories of early social fear and age 5 socially anxious behaviors were moderated by individual differences in inhibitory control. Consistent with previous research showing associations between overcontrol and anxiety symptoms, more negative outcomes were observed when stable, high levels of social fear across childhood were coupled with high levels of inhibitory control. Results suggest that the combination of social fear and overcontrol reflect a profile of early risk for the development of social inhibition and social anxiety problems.

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