It is known that adolescents tend to adopt the same behaviors as their peers. Since Canadian students spend an average of 923 hours per academic year in the company of their classmates, Sandrine Charbonneau wanted to see if there was any association between a student’s “state” (momentary) anxiety and “trait” anxiety (long-term). term). of your classmates.
In his master’s research at the research center of the Montreal Mental Health University Institute, under the guidance of Professor Sonia Lupien, he found an association of this type in girls, but not in boys.
Their findings, published in International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Healthwere based on data collected by Audrey-Ann Journault for her doctoral research into the nature of anxiety experienced by young people in school and possible contributors such as parental, academic, and individual factors.
Charbonneau compiled data from questionnaires completed in the classroom by more than 1,400 girls and boys in six primary schools and seven secondary schools on Montreal’s North Shore. Respondents were in 5th, 6th, 10th and 11th grades.
The state-trait model of anxiety
Charbonneau applied the state-trait model of anxiety developed by American psychologist Charles Spielberger in 1988 to analyze his data.
The model distinguishes between two types of anxiety:
- State anxiety is a transitory emotion that fluctuates according to environmental stimuli perceived as threatening. A student experiencing state anxiety has physical manifestations such as sweating, rapid breathing, stomach aches, etc. for a short time;
- Trait anxiety is a personality trait, an intrinsic characteristic of the individual that can lead him to perceive different situations as threatening. A student with trait anxiety will tend to experience more state anxiety at school.
Charbonneau analyzed the effect of being around peers with trait anxiety on a student’s state anxiety. She also looked at whether the effect of peer anxiety was different for girls and boys in middle and high school.
The effect of trait anxiety
The results indicate an association between a student’s state anxiety and other students’ trait anxiety, but only for girls. Being surrounded by girls with trait anxiety in the classroom has an effect on the girls’ anxiety state; boys do not respond in the same way to their peers’ anxiety.
“Specifically, if the average trait anxiety of the girls in the class increases by 5 points on a scale of 1 to 10 from one year to the next, a girl’s individual state anxiety will increase by two points, while a boy’s will increase only 0.3 points,” said Charbonneau.
The effect does not appear to vary with age; the association between a student’s state anxiety and peer trait anxiety is similar for middle and high school students.
Is there a difference between students from private and public schools? This question was not part of Charbonneau’s analysis, but Journault has examined it.
“My doctoral research indicates that public school students are more likely to experience anxiety than private school students,” Journault said. “This goes against conventional wisdom but is consistent with findings from other studies. One hypothesis that could explain this is that young people who have more difficulty passing grades are at greater risk for anxiety.”
Why girls and not boys? The role of co-rumination
Charbonneau’s study is among the first to show that classmates can affect a student’s anxiety state and that girls and boys respond differently.
Since this is new ground, it’s hard to explain why only girls are sensitive to the anxiety of other girls in their class, but Charbonneau has a few hypotheses.
“It is well accepted in the scientific literature that girls express more anxiety than boys, and this could be because girls are socialized to express emotions, unlike boys,” she suggested.
She also noted that “girls are generally better than boys at detecting the emotions of others” and, as the most frequent interactions in adolescence are with same-sex peers, “affiliation in the face of a stressor is one of the processes that can be directly related to the findings.”
Studies have shown that girls tend to affiliate in the face of stressful situations, unlike boys. “And once they are affiliated, they tend to talk more intensely about their problems and negative emotions, a phenomenon called co-rumination,” explained Charbonneau. “Young people who co-ruminate tend to constantly share their concerns without finding concrete solutions.”
Sandrine Charbonneau et al, Anxiety in the Classroom: Only Girls’ Anxiety Is Related to Same-Sex Peers’ Anxiety, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (2022). DOI: 10.3390/ijerph20010084
Provided by the University of Montreal
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