As parents we never want our kids to experience pain or anxiety, but understand that there are some circumstances in life in which those unpleasant feelings are likely to occur. Take, for example, the dreaded vaccinations. Growing up the idea of that needle coming towards our tender arm evoked feelings of straight-up panic. Many of us can recall meekly inquiring whether or not the day's wellness checkup involved one of those unwelcome shots. In return, we wince at the idea of our own kids having to endure them.
A new research study out of the University of California, Riverside finds the expectation of pain actually makes that pain a reality. Essentially, if kids think something is going to hurt, it will. And often our encouragement that the shot will be over quickly or "won't be so bad" actually doesn't help the situation.
Panic of pain feeds into real feelings of pain, plain and simple. So while you might ask, "That wasn't so bad, was it?" Your child is thinking, "Yes, it was!"
"We know that expectation affects pain experience in adults; we don’t know whether this is also true for children,” said Kalina Michalska, a UC Riverside psychologist who runs the Kids Interaction and Neuro Development Lab.
The experiment involved 21 healthy children, 27 children with an anxiety disorder, and 25 adults.
During the study, the team applied thermal heat and asked participants to rate levels of pain at low, medium, or high. High was the temperate of very warm tap water. However, only the medium temperature was actually used on all subjects. The only difference was the sound cues given before the applied heat -- with one meant for low heat or high heat. Despite hearing a sound to indicate low or high heat, only medium heat was applied.
The result? According to study authors, all three groups reported a similar relationship between pain expectation and experience.
“What we learn is that both healthy and anxious children’s experience of pain is influenced by what they are told about it. If we tell them they will experience a lot of pain – or they tell themselves this – they will actually experience more pain and greater negative emotions as a consequence,” said Michalska.
So how do we keep worries at bay when our children are about to experience a not-so-pleasant feeling, such as vaccinations? It's all in the delivery.
Michalska tells parents not to over hype a painful experience and perhaps give them a frame of reference that isn't quite as terrifying as to what the feeling will be like. She gives the example of saying “This is going to feel like a branch scraping against your skin.” In the end, hopefully your child will walk away less scared, and without pain.