When "don't worry" communicates fear: Children's perceptions of parental reassurance and distraction during a painful medical procedure

Pain. 2010 Jul;150(1):52-58. doi: 10.1016/j.pain.2010.02.021. Epub 2010 Mar 15.


Children's distress during painful medical procedures is strongly influenced by adult behavior. Adult reassurance (e.g., "it's okay") is associated with increased child distress whereas distraction is associated with increased child coping. It is unknown why reassurance shows this counterintuitive relationship with child distress. The present research investigated whether children perceive their parents as fearful when they reassure using complementary observational and experimental methodologies. One hundred children (40 boys, 60 girls) 5-10years old (M=8.02, SD=1.69) and their parents (86 mothers, 14 fathers) participated. First, spontaneous parent-child interactions during pediatric venipuncture were captured and used for a video-mediated recall task in which the children viewed instances of parental reassurance and distraction and rated their parents' fear and happiness. Second, the children were asked to rate the intensity of parental fear and happiness for 12 video vignettes showing an actor posing as a parent during venipuncture. To determine whether the children's perceptions varied with the qualities of the behavior, the vignettes manipulated: facial expression (happy vs. fearful), vocal tone (rising vs. falling), and content (informative reassurance vs. uninformative reassurance vs. distraction). For both tasks, the children provided higher ratings of fear during reassurance than distraction. In response to the vignettes, the children gave higher ratings of parental fear for a fearful facial expression, but the influence of vocal tone differed with the verbal content of the utterance. The results provide insight into the complexity of adult reassurance and highlight the important role of parental facial expression, tone, and verbal content during painful medical procedures.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological
  • Adult
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Facial Expression
  • Fear / psychology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Pain / psychology*
  • Pain Measurement
  • Parent-Child Relations*
  • Phlebotomy / psychology*
  • Social Perception*
  • Statistics, Nonparametric
  • Stress, Psychological / psychology