UEL Baby Dev Lab

Heart 2 Heart (H2H)

Heart 2 Heart (H2H)

Heart to heart data visualisation

Clinically elevated levels of anxiety represent the most prevalent child mental health condition in the world. Available evidence suggests a key role of environmental influences in the development of anxiety, with recent research suggesting that early childhood is a crucial period for identifying environmental risk factors. As yet, though, our understanding of the early life causative factors that contribute to the development of anxiety conditions are limited.

One area that may elucidate the intergenerational transmission of anxiety is that of parent-infant dynamics, as these early relational patterns are thought to play an influential role in later socio-emotional development. Investigations into these dynamics have typically been focused on observable behaviour in short segments of lab-based interaction, despite the need for ecologically valid and multi-method approaches in investigating anxiety precursors.

In this project, led by Celia Smith and co-supervised with Professor Tony Charman and Professor Emily Jones, we use naturalistic biobehavioural recording techniques to examine the mechanisms of emotion dysregulation in dyads at elevated likelihood of anxiety conditions and other psychiatric disorders.

First, we looked (PDF here) at how synchronised physiological stress states are between children and their parents, and how this differs between anxious and non-anxious parents. The two groups did not differ by mean heart rate or heart rate variability, but dyads in the more anxious group showed higher physiological synchrony compared to the less anxious group. We also found that low anxiety parents showed elevated physiological arousal following only the most extreme instances of peak infant arousal (‘selective reactivity’), whereas high anxiety parents showed elevated arousal relative to small-scale changes in infant arousal. Subsequently, it was shown that more selective reactivity in the parent associated with faster infant recovery following naturally occurring peaks of negative affect. Taken together, the pattern of results indicated that more anxious parents (who were more physiologically synchronised with their infants; who were less likely to downregulate high dyadic arousal levels, and who displayed less selective reactivity in response to infant arousal peaks) had infants who tended to have slower recovery times from negative episodes.

It was also expected that greater parental arousal would associate with more stimulating behaviours among parents with higher levels of anxiety. Some evidence for this was found with respect to parental vocal behaviour (PDF here). Specifically, in the high anxiety group, parents’ high arousal levels were more likely to associate with high intensity vocalisations, and parents were more likely to vocalise in high-intensity, long-lasting clusters (or ‘bursts’) compared to the low anxiety group. When examining how these more stimulating parenting behaviours related to infant hyperarousal, it was found that high intensity parental vocalisations were succeeded by sustained increases in arousal among both infants and parents in the high, but not the low, anxiety group.

To find out more about this research you can follow Celia Smith on Twitter. Or watch this video.

Latest publications

  1. Wass, S., Phillips, E., Smith, C., & Goupil, L. (2021). Vocalisations and the Dynamics of Interpersonal Arousal Coupling in Caregiver-Infant dyads. PsyArXiv. https://psyarxiv.com/gmfk7/

  2. Wass, S., Phillips, E., Smith, C., Fatimehin, E., & Goupil, L. (2021). Interdependencies between vocal behaviour and interpersonal arousal coupling in caregiver-infant dyads. PsyArxiv. https://psyarxiv.com/gmfk7

  3. Smith, C., Jones, E., Wass, S., Pasco, G., Johnson, M., Charman, & Wan, M. (2021). Infant effortful control mediates relations between nondirective parenting and internalising-related child behaviours in an autism-enriched infant cohort. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10803-021-05219-x

  4. Wass, S., Smith, C., Clackson, K., Gibb, C., Eitzenberger, J., & Mirza, F. (2019). Parents Mimic and Influence Their Infant’s Autonomic State through Dynamic Affective State Matching. Current Biology. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0960982219307092

  5. Smith, C., Jones, E., Charman, T., Clackson, K., Mirza, F., & Wass, S. (2019). Anxious parents show higher physiological synchrony with their infants. Psychological Medicine. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/psychological-medicine/article/anxious-parents-show-higher-physiological-synchrony-with-their-infants/24F04769550BD0419EC5081FC0C9FAD7