Background. Somatoform disorders may have their roots in childhood through processes that involve an enhanced parental focus on health. The aim of this study was to test the hypothesis that somatizing mothers will show less joint involvement than other mothers during play but greater responsiveness when this play involves a ‘medical’ theme.
Method. Cross-sectional observational study of 42 chronic somatizers, 44 organically ill and 50 healthy mothers and their 4–8 year-old children during structured play and a meal. Tasks comprised boxes containing tea-set items, ‘medical’ items and a light snack.
Results. Somatizing mothers were emotionally flatter and showed lower rates of joint attention than other mothers during both play tasks. While the three groups had similar rate of bids for attention, somatizing mothers were more responsive to their child's bids during play with the medical box than at other times. In contrast, the children of somatizing mothers ignored a greater proportion of their mother's bids during play with the medical box than did children of other mothers or during play with a non-medical theme.
Conclusion. The study has demonstrated tentative evidence in support of the hypothesis.