Background: Exposure to an ill parent in childhood may be a risk factor for adult somatization. This study examines the hypothesis that somatizing adults are more likely to have been exposed to illness as a child and that in turn, their children are more likely to report ill health and to have more contact with medical services than children of other mothers.
Method: A cross-sectional comparative investigation of three groups of mothers and their children of 4-8 years of age: (i) 48 mothers suffering from chronic somatization; (ii) 51 mothers with chronic 'organic' illness; and (iii) 52 healthy mothers was carried out.
Results: Somatizing mothers were more likely than other women to report exposure to childhood neglect and to physical illness in a parent (OR 2.9; 95% CI 1.4-6.1). The children of these somatizing mothers were more likely to have health problems than were the children of organically ill or healthy women and had more consultations with family doctors (average annual rates: somatizers 4.9 (S.D. 3.8), organic 3.0 (S.D. 3.5) and healthy 2.8 (S.D. 2.6)). Multivariate modelling of consultation rates among children found significant main effects for maternal somatization, maternal childhood adversity, the child's tendency to worry about health and a two-way interaction of maternal childhood adversity and her somatization status.
Conclusions: The hypotheses are broadly supported. However, it is important to emphasize the extent to which these findings are based on maternal reports.