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Parental catastrophizing about children’s pain and selective attention to varying levels of facial expression of pain in children: A dot-probe study

Vervoort, Tine*; Caes, Line; Crombez, Geert; Koster, Ernst; Van Damme, Stefaan; Dewitte, Marieke; Goubert, Liesbet

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doi: 10.1016/j.pain.2011.03.015

The attentional demand of pain has primarily been investigated within an intrapersonal context. Little is known about observers’ attentional processing of another’s pain. The present study investigated, within a sample of parents (n = 65; 51 mothers, 14 fathers) of school children, parental selective attention to children’s facial display of pain and the moderating role of child’s facial expressiveness of pain and parental catastrophizing about their child’s pain. Parents performed a dot-probe task in which child facial display of pain (of varying pain expressiveness) were presented. Findings provided evidence of parental selective attention to child pain displays. Low facial displays of pain appeared sufficiently and also, as compared with higher facial displays of pain, equally capable of engaging parents’ attention to the location of threat. Severity of facial displays of pain had a nonspatial effect on attention; that is, there was increased interference (ie, delayed responding) with increasing facial expressiveness. This interference effect was particularly pronounced for high-catastrophizing parents, suggesting that being confronted with increasing child pain displays becomes particularly demanding for high-catastrophizing parents. Finally, parents with higher levels of catastrophizing increasingly attended away from low pain expressions, whereas selective attention to high-pain expressions did not differ between high-catastrophizing and low-catastrophizing parents. Theoretical implications and further research directions are discussed.

Parental attentional processing of child pain is dependent on parental catastrophizing about the child’s pain, child facial expressiveness of pain, and the interaction between the two.

Sponsorships or completing interests that may be relevant to content are disclosed at the end of this article.

Department of Experimental-Clinical and Health Psychology, Ghent University, Ghent, Belgium

*Corresponding author. Address: Department of Experimental-Clinical and Health Psychology, Ghent University, Henri Dunantlaan 2, B-9000 Ghent, Belgium. Tel.: +32 (0) 9 264 91 08, fax: +32 (0) 9 264 64 71.


Article history: Received 25 January 2011; Received in revised form 8 March 2011; Accepted 10 March 2011.

© 2011 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.
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