New research shows that close friendships among school-aged children may influence how they think about danger.
The study investigated whether close friends affect each other's fear responses, both in terms of beliefs and what they would do to avoid potential danger. The findings show for the first time that children in close friendships exhibit shared patterns of fear-related thoughts, and that they influence each other's fears when discussing these issues together.
It is well known that fears are common in children and although these usually diminish over time, some children go on to develop significant fears that can interfere with their daily lives. Specific phobias are the more common form of childhood anxiety and if left untreated they can continue into adulthood.
While some childhood fears can be explained by a child's genetic inheritance, there is considerable evidence that children's fears are affected by direct learning and the information they are given from others, for example their parents. This study suggests that the transmission of fears, as well as ideas about how to behave in fear-provoking situations, might also occur in other close relationships, such as those with friends.
The findings could have practical implications for professionals working with children, for example those being treated for anxiety disorders. The results could also lead to designing interventions whereby close friends can help change their friends' thoughts during therapy.
Children being treated for anxiety disorders need to be asked whether they have friends who may be influencing or maintaining their negative thoughts, and it may subsequently be useful for them to be given strategies for how to discuss these thoughts with peers in an adaptive way.
They also suggest that school-based interventions aiming to reduce anxiety in primary school-aged children could instruct pairs of close friends to discuss and resolve their worries in a positive manner with each other.