Making sense of children's medically unexplained symptoms: managing ambiguity, authenticity and responsibility

Psychol Health Med. 2012;17(3):285-94. doi: 10.1080/13548506.2011.608804. Epub 2012 Jan 31.


Medically unexplained symptoms such as headache, tiredness and stomach problems are common amongst children and research highlights the potential importance of the family environment in their development and maintenance. The present qualitative study aimed to explore how mothers make sense and manage their child's unexplained recurrent somatic symptoms. Mothers (n = 13) with children with headaches, tiredness or stomach problems were interviewed. Transcripts were analysed using thematic analysis. Three main areas emerged relating to "making sense of the symptom", "impact of the symptom" and "strategies for coping". Transcending these areas were three core issues relating to managing ambiguity, authenticity and responsibility. In particular, more ambiguous symptoms were associated with making uncontrollable causal attributions that removed responsibility away from the family. Further, even though the mothers reported coping strategies that may have exacerbated their child's symptoms these were defended in ways to minimise their own potential influence on the symptom and to emphasise its authenticity. In conclusion, mothers' perceptions and behaviours may be counterproductive in the longer term but function in the more immediate term by facilitating a protective relationship with their child.

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological*
  • Adolescent
  • Child
  • Child Behavior / psychology
  • Child, Preschool
  • Family Health*
  • Fatigue / psychology
  • Female
  • Gastrointestinal Diseases / psychology
  • Headache / psychology
  • Health Knowledge, Attitudes, Practice*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mother-Child Relations
  • Mothers / psychology*
  • Qualitative Research
  • Somatoform Disorders / psychology*
  • Stress, Psychological / psychology