Heightened contextual threat induces elevated levels of parental psychophysiological distress in response to child pain, and is associated with more pain-attending talk in catastrophizing parents.
Limited research has addressed processes underlying parents’ empathic responses to their child’s pain. The present study investigated the effects of parental catastrophizing, threatening information about the child’s pain, and child pain expression upon parental emotional and behavioral responses to their child’s pain. A total of 56 school children participated in a heat pain task consisting of 48 trials while being observed by 1 of their parents. Trials were preceded by a blue or yellow circle, signaling possible pain stimulation (i.e., pain signal) or no pain stimulation (i.e., safety signal). Parents received either neutral or threatening information regarding the heat stimulus. Parents’ negative emotional responses when anticipating their child’s pain were assessed using psychophysiological measures— i.e., fear-potentiated startle and corrugator EMG activity. Parental behavioral response to their child’s pain (i.e., pain attending talk) was assessed during a 3-minute parent–child interaction that followed the pain task. The Child Facial Coding System (CFCS) was used to assess children’s facial pain expression during the pain task. Results indicated that receiving threatening information was associated with a stronger parental corrugator EMG activity during pain signals in comparison with safety signals. The same pattern was found for parental fear-potentiated startle reflex, particularly when the child’s facial pain expression was high. In addition, parents who reported high levels of catastrophizing thought about their child’s pain engaged, in comparison with low-catastrophizing parents, in more pain-attending talk when they received threatening information. The findings are discussed in the context of affective-motivational theories of pain.
aDepartment of Experimental-Clinical and Health Psychology, Ghent University, Belgium
bDepartment of Psychology, McGill University, Montréal, Québec, Canada
*Corresponding author. Address: Department of Experimental-Clinical and Health Psychology, Ghent University, Henri Dunantlaan 2, B-9000 Ghent, Belgium. Tel.: +32 (0) 9 264 86 12; fax: +32 (0) 9 264 64 71.
Submitted August 26, 2011; revised November 16, 2011; accepted December 9, 2011.