National Post

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Saturday, July 10, 1999

Children learn painful habits from parents
Mimic behaviour: study

Tom Arnold
National Post

Mothers who complain about pain are passing on the behaviour to their children, concludes a new Canadian study.

The study of 96 mother-child pairings at the Pediatric Pain Laboratory at Dalhousie University, which concludes that social learning factors play a critical role in how children learn about pain, is among the first of its kind in the world. Previous pain research has mainly concentrated on adults, largely because administering pain to children for research purposes is complicated and controversial.

The research, conducted by Julie Goodman, a PhD student in clinical psychology and Dr. Patrick McGrath, a paediatrics professor in the psychology department, is to be published in the next year.

The researchers inflicted "mild to moderate" pain on children -- all aged 10-14 years -- after they watched their mothers undergo the same painful experience. The mother's behaviour, including her facial expressions, was monitored as she plunged her arm into very cold water for four minutes. The woman's son or daughter watched the behaviour, and then plunged their own hands into cold water.

Children whose mothers tended to lower their brows, squeeze their eyes, raise their cheeks, wrinkle their noses or bite their lips to show pain were much more likely to copy their experience. Some mothers were told to exaggerate or minimize their pain slightly to see if the children would react in the same way. They did.

"This is significant, because like other learned behaviours there are things that are very difficult to unlearn, like bad habits like biting your nails or smoking cigarettes," Ms. Goodman said yesterday. "The big picture of this study is that when kids are exposed to an intolerant model, someone who is experiencing or showing obvious displays of pain, they're more likely to respond in that way to a similar pain situation.

"That is evidence for me that social learning factors are hugely important in how kids learn about how to behave when they're having pain. And if we understand how pain problems develop in the first place, then it will help us target how to treat them.

On a scale of one to 10, mothers, on average, ranked the pain level at four. Children, whose mothers exaggerated their pain, rated the pain at nearly five, while children of those parents who minimized the pain, ranked it at 3.7.

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