Observational fear learning in children: How kids can “catch” a fright

Young boy covering face, one eye peeking out, fearful manner

Observational fear learning, sometimes called “observational threat learning,” is what happens when we use social cues to identify something as threatening or dangerous. Can children learn in this way? Absolutely. In fact, it’s very common. Here’s an overview of this fascinating — and crucial — aspect of your child’s emotional development.

Everybody knows how kids become fearful. Something bad happens, and their brains make the connection – usually without requiring a second lesson. “I reached out to pet the dog, and it bit me. Be scared of dogs!” Fear learning is rapid, and that makes sense. If we required lots of repetition or practice to learn that something is dangerous, we might not survive the process.

But we can take this reasoning one step further. Why wait until you suffer an injury – or worse – to learn a new fear? If I saw you get bitten by a dog, it would be pretty silly for me to ignore that information, and try to pet the dog myself. In fact, if any of our ancestors had taken this wait-until-it-happens-to-me approach, they probably wouldn’t have survived.

So natural selection favored individuals who were responsive to social cues, and not just in humans. Lots of creatures – including apes, monkeys, pigeons, and mice – can learn to fear by observation (Olsson et al 2007).

At what age does observational fear learning in children first appear?

We don’t know exactly how early this ability appears, but experiments indicate that it’s already present by 12-15 months. In one study, 12-month-old babies behaved more fearfully toward a stranger after witnessing their mothers doing the same (deRosnay 2006). In another, children as young as 15 months became more fearful of toy snakes and spiders after these items were paired with photographs of their mothers looking frightened (Gerull and Rapee 2002).

There are also hints that much younger babies are paying special attention to social cues of fear. For example, in a study monitoring infant brain activity, 3-month-old babies were presented with images of a woman looking at an object. In some trials, the woman had a neutral facial expression. In others, she looked frightened. Immediately after viewing the social cue, babies viewed the object by itself, and their responses depended on the experimental condition. If they had seen the women staring at the object with fear, their brain activity showed evidence of heightened attention (Hoehl et al 2008).

What do parents need to know about the observational learning of fear?

Children – even young children – are sensitive to our facial expressions and tone of voice. They can pick up on fearful behavior depicted by characters on television too. So we need to be aware of how these influences can contribute to the development of fear. In the rest of this article, we’ll take a closer look at the evidence, and review what actions parents and teachers can take to help kids avoid developing fears that are maladaptive or dysfunctional.

Vicarious threat conditioning: How merely watching someone else can train a child’s stress response system

Imagine this. An adult sits at a desk. His fingers are wired up so that he can receive some mild (but annoying) electric shocks. And when are these shocks administered? Immediately after a nearby light turns red. Sometimes the light turns yellow, in which case there is no shock.

The man quickly learns to anticipate each shock, and this shows up in his physiological reactions.  When the light turns red, his sympathetic nervous system becomes more active. For example, his heart rate may increase, and he experiences a brief pulse of perspiration that makes his skin more conductive to electricity. The researchers can detect this “skin conductance response” (SCR) through electrodes on the man’s fingers, and it confirms that their conditioning protocol has been successful. The man has learned to associate the red light with a shock, so it triggers a physiological threat response.

Now consider what happens to an 8-year-old observer. She watches the events we’ve just described on a video screen. She sees the man receive shocks – reliably – each time the light flashes red. She also sees the man sitting calmly when the light flashes yellow.

When the video ends, a researcher connects the child’s fingers to the shock-inducing device. The child is informed that she’ll be watching more of these videos, and – this time – she herself might receive a mild, electric shock.

As it turns out, the child never receives any shocks. But she sees the light flash occasionally – sometimes red, sometimes yellow. And she experiences the same electrodermal responses as the man in the video. When the light turns red, her SCR tells the tale. It appears that just watching the man caused threat conditioning in the girl.

As you have probably guessed, I’m describing a real-life experiment. Marie-France Marin and her colleagues tested eighty kids altogether – children who were between the ages of 8 and 12. And the researchers didn’t just confirm that kids can an acquire a conditioned threat response through observational learning.

The researchers were also interested in something they call “fear extinction learning” – a kind of reversal of the threat conditioning process. What happens when kids keep seeing the red light turn on, and notice that they aren’t receiving any shocks? The researchers expected the kids would habituate to the red light stimulus – that their threat response would diminish over time – and that’s what happened in the session described above.

But that wasn’t the end of it, because the researchers brought the kids back to the lab the next day, and tested them a second time. And here’s the thing: Despite having seemed to make progress the day before, kids were – yet again – mounting a threat response to the red light. The newly-conditioned threat response was back on display (Marin et al 2020). To eliminate the response altogether, kids required more fear extinction training.

In other words, learning the threat response – by watching others – had been fast and easy. Unlearning it took longer.

More evidence that fear is contagious

We’ve seen that a relatively brief bout of observational learning can condition children to view something as a threat. To what extent does this make children truly fearful? That’s hard to say on the basis of the study by Marin’s team. They focused on the underlying physiology of the threat response, and didn’t attempt to measure children’s emotional states.

But other social learning studies have tracked behaviors that are indicative of fear. For example, in a series of experiments by Chris Askew and Andy Field, British children were introduced to three, unfamiliar animal species (the quokka, quoll, and cuscus) using photographs.

Some kids were randomly selected to view an image of the quokka alongside a fearful human face. Others saw the quokka paired with a happy face, or with no face. And researchers proceeded in the same way with the remaining animal species.

After these introductions, kids were tested in a variety of ways. For example, researchers interviewed children to find out if they would be afraid to approach each type of creature. Kids expressed more fearful beliefs about whichever animal they had seen paired with the frightened face (Askew and Field 2007; Dunne and Askew 2013; Reynolds et al 2014).

In addition, kids would take longer to approach a box if they thought it contained the fear-paired animal (Askew and Field 2007; Dunne and Askew 2013; Reynolds et al 2014), and they were more likely to experience an elevated heart rate, too (Reynolds et al 2014).

So we’ve got experimental evidence that social cues can cause children to change their physiological threat responses, fearful beliefs, and approach behaviors. And research also offers these important insights:

  • Kids learn threat responses and fear responses by observing their parents, but they often learn equally well from watching strangers (Marin Van Lierde et al 2020; Marin et al 2020; Dunne and Askew 2013). So we should assume that just about everybody – teachers, neighbors, even characters on television – can have an influence on the development of children’s fears.
  • Kids may experience stronger observational fear learning if they more reactive and have an insecure relationship with their parents. This, at any rate, has been observed in experiments where a children watched parents undergo a “fear-conditioning” protocol with electric shocks. Kids who had less secure relationships – and who reacted more to seeing their parent get shocked – tended to experience a more dramatic threat response when they themselves were tested later (Bilodeau-Houle et al 2023).
  • Observational fear learning may also be more powerful if a child is feeling sleepy. When kids are sleepy, they are more likely to ratchet up their fearful beliefs in response to social cues (Reynolds and Ewing 2021).
  • Social cues can help kids learn that a previously-feared item is safe. This is the flip side of the observational learning of fear – “vicarious fear extinction.” When children encounter evidence that other people believe something is safe, it helps kids overcome their fear (Skversky-Blocq et al 2021).

The takeaway: How can we apply these insights to help kids avoid or overcome a dysfunctional fear?

In some respects, the research hasn’t taught us anything radical or new. When we’re around someone who is scared, it can frighten us. Duh. But these experiments should help us appreciate the power of observational learning, and make us aware of the (sometimes subtle) ways that social cues affect our kids. Here some thoughts on translating the evidence into action.

Monitor media content that can trigger fear in children, and remember: It isn’t just the obvious, “scary stuff” that poses a risk.

A movie doesn’t have to feature a terrifying monster or ghoul to trigger fear in a child. Under the right circumstances, kids may aquire a fear of something commonplace and non-threatening — like a caterpillar or doll. It’s also likely that kids will pick up on the fear that characters display towards certain kinds of human beings — such as individuals belonging to a designated “out-group.”

Be aware of your own fears and anxieties, and seek help for them.

If you are struggling with fear or anxiety, your child will likely notice that something isn’t right. So it’s important to take care of yourself: work on stress management, get social support, and seek therapy when needed. If your child needs help with a fear that you yourself share, ask a therapist for advice. Depending on the details, your therapist may recommend that you find another adult to help your child — at least until you have overcome the fear yourself.

Show sensitivity when your child experiences fear, but be careful about acting in ways that seem overprotective or anxious.

Experts recommend that we walk a fine line when helping children who are anxious or fearful. On the one hand, we shouldn’t be dismissive of children’s fears. We should let kids know that it’s okay to experience fear, and we should reassure them that they are safe. But — on the other hand — we should avoid sending the message that we think a child is especially vulnerable or needy. When parents are overprotective, it can reinforce or worsen a child’s emotional problems.

Harness the power of social cues to help prevent fear acquisition — or help reverse a fear that already exists.

As noted above, research shows that we can help kids overcome their fears by acting as role models. For example, if your child has acquired a fear of cats by watching other people, you can help your child get over the fear by modeling positive reactions to cats (Askew et al 2016). It probably won’t be enough by itself, and if your child’s fears or anxiety seem intense, you should definitely consult your doctor for advice. But — in general — positive role modeling can be helpful — especially in cases where a child’s fear was caused by observation learning.

More information about children’s fears and the power of social cues

Is your child struggling with nighttime fears? This Parenting Science article outlines some of the basic coping strategies that researchers recommend. For a broader discussion of how negative emotions affect families, see this guide to family stress. And for tips of helping your child cope with unpleasant feelings — including fear and anger — see my article about emotion coaching.

In addition, if you are curious about young children’s sensitivity to social cues, you might like these articles:

References: Observational fear learning in children

Askew C and Field AP. 2007. Vicarious learning and the development of fears during childhood. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 45, 2616–2627.

Askew C, Reynolds G, Fielding-Smith S, Field AP. 2016. Inhibition of vicariously learned fear in children using positive modeling and prior exposure. J Abnorm Psychol. 125(2):279-291.

Bilodeau-Houle A, Morand-Beaulieu S, Bouchard V, Marin MF. 2023. Parent-child physiological concordance predicts stronger observational fear learning in children with a less secure relationship with their parent. J Exp Child Psychol. 226:105553.

Debiec J and Olsson A. 2017. Social Fear Learning: from Animal Models to Human Function. Trends Cogn Sci. 21(7):546-555.

de Rosnay M, Cooper PJ, Tsigaras N, Murray L.  2006. Transmission of social anxiety from mother to infant: an experimental study using a social referencing paradigm. Behav Res Ther. 44:1165–1175.

Dunne G and Askew C. 2013. Vicarious learning and unlearning of fear in childhood via mother and stranger models. Emotion. 13(5):974-80.

Field AP, Argyris NG, Knowles KA. 2001. Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf: a prospective paradigm to test Rachman’s indirect pathways in children. Behav Res Ther. 39(11):1259-76.

Gerull FC and Rapee RM. 2002. Mother knows best: Effects of maternal modelling on the acquisition of fear and avoidance behaviour in toddlers. Behav Res Ther 40(3):279-87.

Hoehl S, Wiese L, Striano T. 2008. Young infants’ neural processing of objects is affected by eye gaze direction and emotional expression. PLoS One. 3(6):e2389.

Marin MF, Bilodeau-Houle A, Morand-Beaulieu S, Brouillard A, Herringa RJ, and Milad MR. 2020. Vicarious conditioned fear acquisition and extinction in child-parent dyads. Sci Rep. 10(1):17130.

Olsson A, Nearing KI, Phelps EA. 2007. Learning fears by observing others: the neural systems of social fear transmission. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2(1):3-11.

Reynolds G and Ewing D. 2021. Children’s sleepiness facilitates the effect of vicarious learning on the development of fear. J Exp Child Psychol. 208:105129.

Reynolds G, Field AP, and Askew C. 2014. Effect of vicarious fear learning on children’s heart rate responses and attentional bias for novel animals. Emotion. 14(5):995-1006.

Skversky-Blocq Y, Haaker J, Shechner T. 2021. Watch and Learn: Vicarious Threat Learning across Human Development. Brain Sci. 11(10):1345.

Van Lierde E, Goubert L, Vervoort T, Hughes G, Van den Bussche E. 2020. Learning to fear pain after observing another’s pain: An experimental study in schoolchildren. Eur J Pain. 24(4):791-806. 

Content of “Observational fear learning in children” last modified 3/2023

Image credit: Boy covering face by esthermm / shutterstock

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