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Sex Differences in the Relationship Between Maternal Negative Life Events and Children's Laboratory Pain Responsivity

Evans, Subhadra PhD; Tsao, Jennie C. I. PhD; Lu, Qian MD, PhD; Kim, Su C. MSc; Turk, Norman; Myers, Cynthia D. PhD; Zeltzer, Lonnie K. MD

Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics: August 2009 - Volume 30 - Issue 4 - p 279-288
doi: 10.1097/DBP.0b013e3181b0ffe4
Original Article

Objectives: Previous research has demonstrated links between psychosocial factors, including negative life events (NLE) and pain in children. This study examined sex differences in the relationship among mother-reported NLE, child NLE, mother somatization, and children's laboratory pain responses for heat, cold, and pressure pain tasks. We predicted that maternal NLE would be moderately associated with girls' pain responses but would not be associated with boys' pain responses.

Method: Participants were 176 nonclinical children (89 boys) aged 8 to 18 years (mean = 12.2, SD = 2.7) and their mothers. Mothers and children completed questionnaires assessing their perceptions of NLE experienced in the previous 12 months.

Results: Contrary to predictions, maternal NLE were related to pain responses in both boys and girls, although in opposite directions. Thus, increased maternal stress was associated with increased pain responses in girls but with decreased pain responses in boys. In addition, the impact of maternal NLE was only apparent for heat and pain tasks, indicating differential effects for various types of pain.

Conclusion: The current findings underscore the importance of family variables in understanding sex differences in children's pain. Future research is needed to examine the mechanisms within the parent–child relationship that contribute to sex-differentiated pain outcomes, particularly under conditions of exacerbated parental stress.

From the Department of Pediatrics, Pediatric Pain Program, David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, Los Angeles, CA.

Received June 2008; accepted April 2009.

Address for reprints: Subhadra Evans, PhD, Pediatric Pain Program, David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, 10833 Le Conte Avenue, 22-464 MDCC, Los Angeles, CA 90095; e-mail:

© 2009 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.