The Effect of Parental Modeling on Child Pain Responses: The Role of Parent and Child Sex

  • Katelynn E. Boerner
    Address reprint requests to Katelynn E. Boerner, BSc(Hons), Centre for Pediatric Pain Research, IWK Health Centre, K8536 (8th floor, Children's site), 5850/5980 University Avenue, Halifax, Nova Scotia B3K 6R8, Canada.
    Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada

    Centre for Pediatric Pain Research, IWK Health Centre, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada
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  • Christine T. Chambers
    Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada

    Centre for Pediatric Pain Research, IWK Health Centre, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada

    Department of Pediatrics, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada
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  • Patrick J. McGrath
    Centre for Pediatric Pain Research, IWK Health Centre, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada

    Department of Pediatrics, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada

    Department of Psychiatry, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada

    Department of Community Health and Epidemiology, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada
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  • Vincent LoLordo
    Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada
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  • Rudolf Uher
    Department of Psychiatry, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada
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Published:February 01, 2017DOI:


      • Parental modeling of pain affects children's own pain experience and expression.
      • Effects of parental pain modeling on children may differ on the basis of child sex.
      • Exaggerated parental pain expressions are associated with increased child anxiety.


      Social modeling is a process by which pain behaviors are learned, and research has found parents act as models for their children's behavior. Despite social learning theory predicting that same-sex models have greater effect, no experimental investigation to date has examined the role of sex of the model or observer in social learning of pediatric pain. The present study recruited 168 parent-child dyads (equal father-son, father-daughter, mother-son, and mother-daughter dyads) in which children were generally healthy and 6 to 8 years old. Unbeknownst to their child, parents were randomly assigned to exaggerate their expression of pain, minimize their expression of pain, or act naturally during the cold pressor task (CPT). Parents completed the CPT while their child observed, then children completed the CPT themselves. Children whose parents were in the exaggerate condition reported higher anxiety than children of parents in the minimize condition. Additionally, girls in the exaggerate condition rated their overall pain intensity during the CPT significantly higher than boys in the same condition. No child sex differences were observed in pain intensity for the control or minimize conditions. Parent expressions of pain affects children's anxiety, and sex-specific effects of parental exaggerated pain expression on children's own subsequent pain experience are present.


      This article describes how parental expressions of pain influence children's pain and anxiety, specifically examining the relevance of parent and child sex in this process. These findings have implications for children of parents with chronic pain, or situations in which parents experience pain in the presence of their child (eg, vaccinations).

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