Math anxiety in children may stem from insecure attachment, study suggests

A study published in Frontiers in Psychology suggests a link between parent-child attachment relationships and the development of math anxiety in children. The study found that children who were insecurely attached showed increased math anxiety, even when controlling for age, sex, and intelligence.

According to psychologists, math anxiety refers to the experience of anxiety or tension surrounding tasks that require mathematical problem-solving. This anxiety can show itself at school or in the context of daily life and can be debilitating, affecting not only math performance but also a professional success.

Psychology literature also describes something called attachment security and suggests that the parent-child attachment relationship can be either secure or insecure. Following this theory, previous research has suggested that insecure attachment can promote maladaptive coping strategies that lead to anxiety issues. “While securely attached distressed children easily seek parental support, insecurely attached distressed children cannot confidently rely on their parents. Hence, they rely on less adaptive, secondary attachment-related coping strategies (Mikulincer and Shaver, 2007; Brenning et al., 2011a),” the researchers say.

Prompted by such findings, study authors Guy Bosmans and Bert De Smedt, became the first to consider whether insecure attachment might be associated with math anxiety in children.

A study was conducted involving 87 fifth-graders (average age = 10) recruited from three Flemish primary schools. The children filled out a modified version of the Experiences in Close Relationships Scale-Revised which measured attachment anxiety and attachment avoidance when it came to their relationships with their mothers. They also completed an assessment of math anxiety which included questions like, “How nervous are you when you are called during math class?”. Children completed both a timed and an untimed mathematics test and, finally, an intelligence test.

Findings revealed that assessments of insecure attachment were indeed correlated with math anxiety scores, suggesting that children who were less securely attached showed more math anxiety. Importantly, the relationship remained significant even when controlling for intelligence.

Furthermore, math anxiety was negatively correlated with scores on both the timed and untimed math tests. As researchers point out, this finding suggests that children with insecure attachment show heightened anxiety for mathematics in general, and not simply when working on math under time pressure.

What’s more, mediation analysis showed that math anxiety mediated the relationship between math performance and insecure attachment. The researchers offer a few theories for how this dynamic might work saying, “It might be contended that less securely attached children make more errors during mathematical problem solving due to their elevated levels of math anxiety. It also might be that children who choose to not seek help from parents or teachers, due to insecure attachment, would be less likely to receive help in mathematics from parents or teachers, thus leading to less proficient domain knowledge.”

The authors discuss the limitation that their study did not assess general or trait anxiety, and they, therefore, cannot rule out an interfering effect of trait anxiety. “It would be interesting,” the authors say, “to investigate to what extent the observed association between insecure attachment and math anxiety merely reflects a general anxiety effect. It is possible that for insecurely attached children math anxiety is part of a broader anxiety problem.”

The authors conclude that their findings offer insight into possible intervention techniques that might help children dealing with math anxiety. They point to pass research that has shown that the teacher-child relationship can protect against the dysfunctional effects of insecure attachment in children and suggest that “improving teachers’ skills to respond sensitively to children might decrease insecurely attached children’s math anxiety and increase their mathematics achievement.”

The study, “Insecure attachment is associated with math anxiety in middle childhood”, was authored by Guy Bosmans and Bert DeSmedt.