Sept. 14, 2000 -- Teenagers are notorious for blaming all their problems on their parents. Sometimes they may be right, but just as often they may be wrong. But if your teen has a social phobia, he or she may have hit paydirt in the blame department.
According to a group of American and German researchers, social phobia -- a paralyzing fear of social situations -- may be brought on by a combination of genetics and child-rearing methods. The researchers found that children overprotected or rejected by parents who suffer from depression or anxiety are more likely than other kids to develop the mental disorder, though not necessarily destined to develop it.
"We've studied parental [mental illness] and parenting style as potential risk factors for adolescents developing social phobia, and we found that both contribute to the risk," study author Roselind Lieb, PhD, tells WebMD. She is with the department of clinical psychology and epidemiology at the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich, Germany. Her study appears in the September issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry.
The researchers conducted two sessions of extensive interviews 20 months apart with more than 1,000 teen-age subjects. The participants were 14 to 17 years old, mostly middle class, attending school, and living with their parents at the time of the first interview session. One parent of each child -- the mother, unless she had died or could not be located -- also underwent similar, independent interviews.
They used several questionnaires to assess parenting style (rejection, emotional warmth, overprotection), and how well the family was functioning (problem solving, communication, behavioral control), and they diagnosed the parents and children using internationally accepted psychiatric criteria.
Lieb's team found no link at all between family functioning and teenage social phobia. They did find, however, that teenagers with parents who had social phobia, depression, or other anxiety disorders or who abused alcohol, as well as those with parents who were overprotective or rejected them, were at a significantly increased risk of developing social phobia.
When asked why and how these parental factors might be leading to social phobia in the teenagers, Lieb tells WebMD that "the design of the study doesn't let us determine cause." Both parental history of mental illness and child-rearing traits are playing important roles in the equation, she says, "but we do not know how they interact."
She will, however, hazard a guess. "It's possible that it's a genetic mechanism, and it's also possible that it's behavioral modeling, [that is] children learn how to act in social situations by watching their parents." Because anxious parents might not encourage social activities in their children, the children never learn how to behave in such situations. "Finally, we can imagine complicated interactions between genetic and environmental factors," she says, although the nature of that interaction remains unclear.
But according to Debra A. Hope, PhD, who reviewed the study for WebMD, Lieb's team has "overreached their conclusions a little bit." For one thing, she says, the parental interview responses were inconsistent with those of the teenagers. So what the study tells us "is that adolescent perception of parenting style is related to social anxiety." This may be important, but "it is very different from saying that the actual parenting style is to blame," she tells WebMD.
"Another really important point is that this study was not about parenting," says Hope, "it's about mothers. They interviewed very few fathers, which is a poor design." Hope is a professor and director of the Anxiety Disorders Clinic at University of Nebraska in Lincoln.
Still, Hope tells WebMD that the data has a hopeful message for concerned parents. "It's important for the public to know that social phobia has both family environment and genetic components. Not all anxious parents have anxious kids, and not all anxious kids have anxious parents. It does run in families, but that's not the whole picture by any means. Parents with anxiety disorders shouldn't be excessively worried about passing it on to their kids. "
Lieb tells WebMD that future work will "look deeper into parts of the puzzle in very early childhood that might [lead to] developing social phobia in adolescence."