Study finds intergenerational link between maternal and child somatization

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A new study found that the severity of a mother’s physical pain associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) during their child’s early formative development may impact their child’s health.

The study, published in Frontiers in Psychiatry, was conducted by researchers from Lausanne University Hospital (CHUV), the University of Geneva (UNIGE), and the National Centre of Competence in Research. The scientists set out to study the impact of a mother’s PTSD and the severity of somatization during early motherhood, as well as the impact it had on their children. The study analyzed 64 mother-child pairs in Switzerland. The mothers all struggled with PTSD from domestic violence during adulthood which often involved physical or sexual abuse, and from family violence witnessed from their own childhoods. The study first assessed the mother’s severity of somatization when their child was one to three years old. Five years later, the child’s somatization was also measured using a symptom questionnaire, which was filled in by the mother and during a clinical interview with the child.

The results of the study showed that compared to mothers without PTSD, mothers in the study were more likely to report pain that was not associated with a detectable medical problem. In addition, the study found that school-aged children’s somatization was associated with the severity of their mother’s somatization severity during their early childhood.

This study’s findings suggests that the physical manifestations of trauma can be passed down generationally, emphasizing the importance of a review of patient family history by physicians.  

“To improve patient care in these cases, our results suggest that pediatricians should consider the history of family trauma, since it is often not expressed through words, but through the body,” said Daniel Schechter, MD, deputy physician at the University Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Service (SUPEA) in CHUV’s Department of Psychiatry.