April 16, 2019 1:38 pm
Updated: April 23, 2019 12:03 am

Children’s memory of pain significantly impacted by parents’ anxiety: study

WATCH: A recent study from the University of Calgary found parental anxiety around that surgery can have a long-lasting impact on how the child remembers the pain. Kim Smith reports.

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As a parent, it’s never easy to watch kids undergo a surgical procedure, but a recent study from the University of Calgary found parental anxiety around that surgery can have a long-lasting impact on how the child remembers the pain.

“Parents who were more anxious in general had children who remembered the surgery as worse than it was,” Dr. Melanie Noel, associate professor of psychology at the University of Calgary, said.

“They remember the surgery as being scarier than it actually was,” Noel said.


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Noel and her co-researchers followed the progress of 78 children between the ages of five and seven who underwent tonsillectomies. They also followed the progress of one parent of each of the children.

The study found that not only did anxiety pre-surgery influence childrens’ memories but how parents talked to their kids post-surgery also had a significant impact, said Noel.

Parents who asked a lot of open-ended questions and talked more about positive emotions and aspects of the surgery had children who remembered the surgery in more positive ways.

Whereas, parents who talked more about the pain while reminiscing and used words like ‘hurt’, ‘sting’, and ‘ouch’, had children who remembered the surgery as being worse than it actually was.

READ MORE: What does it mean if your child is considered ‘highly sensitive’?

“How anxious parents are and how they talk to children about a variety of painful experiences, really has a long-lasting impact on not just how the child does in the moment, but how they remember and think about these experiences,” Noel said.

Noel gave the example of a child rating pain post surgery as a ‘two out of ten’, but a month later remembering the pain as a ‘six’.

“Parents who talk to kids and focus more on the pain, and use more pain words have kids who develop exaggerated memories,” Noel said.

“So they remember the pain as being worse than it was.”

Noel said the research can be applied to other painful experiences, like injuries and even getting needles.

“Once those memories are formed, they are a more powerful predictor of how kids will do next time they get a needle or next time they have a surgery than the actual experience of pain itself,” Noel said.

Memories of pain can have a long-lasting impact on kids, even through adulthood, Noel said.

“Almost everybody with a phobia can root that back to a poorly managed experience that they remember from childhood.”

The study was recently published in the medical journal Pain. 


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