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  1. van Tilburg, Miranda A.L. PhD
  2. Venepalli, Neeta MD
  3. Ulshen, Martin MD
  4. Freeman, Katherine L. MD
  5. Levy, Rona PhD, MPH
  6. Whitehead, William E. PhD


Recurrent abdominal pain is a common childhood disorder characterized by multiple episodes of stomachaches severe enough to interrupt daily activities. Recurrent abdominal pain is a difficult diagnosis for parents, children, and clinicians since there is no definitive cause of the symptoms. Research has shown recurrent abdominal pain is at least partly learned through social modeling. The purpose of this study was to understand parental worries and fears of recurrent abdominal pain that explain parental reinforcement of illness behavior.


In-depth interviews were held with 15 parents of children diagnosed with recurrent abdominal pain. Parental cognitions were identified and thematically grouped. Two independent judges coded the interviews for the categories (88% inter-judge reliability). Six major categories of worries were identified. Parental cognitions about recurrent abdominal pain revolved around the fear of a disease and a desire for diagnosis and effective treatment. Many parents stated they felt helpless to know how to deal with their child's suffering.


These fears and worries may explain why parents reinforce illness behavior by showing empathy for a supposedly sick child. The findings also identified areas of possible miscommunications between clinicians and parents. This study adds to our understanding of parents' view on recurrent abdominal pain and gives us tools to address cognitions that can perpetuate symptoms in children.