Cutting Edge Psychology

Chronic pain passed on to kids

Posted on March 10, 2014 at 8:25 PM

The bio-mechanical model cannot make any sense of why kids of parents with chronic pain are far more likely to experience chronic pain themselves, however a psycho-social understanding can. There is no suggestion that structural pathologies of the body (which usually result from lived experience, ie. injuries) are genetically passed on to off-spring. However, the bio-mechanical model blames these structural pathologies for chronic pain. The only way of making sense of off-spring of sufferers of chronic pain having the same affliction is in terms of either social learning (eg. learnt as a way of dealing with emotional pressure in the same way depression or anxiety may be learnt as responses to pressure), and/or as a result of growing up in a family where the predominant feeling is hopelessness and despair.


The current research (below) demonstrates that kids from single parent families where the mother is suffering from chronic pain are far more likely to suffer themselves than kids from either intact families (where one parent suffers chronic pain), or where a single dad suffers this affliction. The reality is that most kids in single parent families are growing up with their mums (not with their dads), so what ever challenges are happening for the mum are more likely to impact on them than challenges going on for the dad. Where they are growing up in two parent families where one parent suffers, at least the other parent is not suffering, so there is a role model for not suffering, and there is likely to be less suffering for the whole family (a gross generalisation, but true in many ways, eg. economic disadvantage of single parent families).


Do kids learn to 'do' chronic pain from a suffering parent? Why wouldn't they, at least in an unconscious manner? We learn from our parents all sorts of ways of being, from religious beliefs through to irrational passions for unsuccessful football teams. Despite personality having a large genetic component, much of it is still socially learnt- over a childhood, we see our parents responding to life in patterned ways, and we internalise many of these patterns. If chronic pain is an unconscious strategy for dealing with distressed emotion which is too threatening for conscious awareness, there is no reason why this tendency could not be learnt, along with everything else we learn from parents. This may create a vulnerability to manifesting emotional pain as chronic physical pain (as an unconscious 'coping strategy'), but I suspect it then takes challenging life events to create the need for diverting pained emotions in this way. Maybe being in a single parent family with mum suffering from chronic pain (as well as perhaps her ongoing conflict with the ex-partner, financial harship, loneliness, lack of social support, resulting depression, etc, etc) could be fuel for this vulnerability to be launched?


These possibilities are all entirely plausible from a psycho-social perspective. The structural pathology theory of chronic pain cannot even begin to explain why the observation of more chronic pain amongst kids of sufferers has been found. More evidence that if we want to make sense of chronic pain, we need to understand the person's body in context of their lived experience, which includes psychological and social factors.

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