Academic journal article The International Journal of Behavioral Consultation and Therapy

Social Learning Theory: Toward a Unified Approach of Pediatric Procedural Pain

Academic journal article The International Journal of Behavioral Consultation and Therapy

Social Learning Theory: Toward a Unified Approach of Pediatric Procedural Pain

Article excerpt


Medical, sometimes painful, procedures such as dental care, blood tests, immunizations, and others are ubiquitous experiences. In childhood, procedural pain emerges from common injections or more invasive procedures, such as IVs, that are needed to treat life-threatening illnesses, such as cancer. Pain is a social experience that emerges from both personal history and social context (Craig & Pillai Riddel, 2003). Management of procedural pain in childhood is important because children's perception of pain is influenced by their early pain experiences that can impact their future response to painful events or procedures (Blount, Piira, & Cohen, 2003; Taddio, Katz, Ilersich, & Koren, 1995). Unfortunately, despite the considerable research in the past two decades, pediatric pain is often underestimated and under-treated (Craig & Pillai Riddell) and dissemination of interventions to reduce pediatric pain continues to be lacking (Blount et al., 2003). Consequently, understanding the development and maintaining factors, as well as the interventions that assist these children is imperative.

Social learning theory is one perspective from which pediatric procedural pain can be understood. A great deal of the literature examining this model has been conducted with chronic pain patients (Levy, Langer, & Whitehead, 2007). Though some have discussed the social learning contributions to procedural pain (e.g., Chambers, Craig & Bennett, 2002), an examination of the social learning implications across the etiology and treatment of pediatric pain has not occurred. Social learning theory provides a model for understanding the development, maintenance and effective treatments of pediatric procedural pain. The goal of this paper is to examine these contributions of social learning theory to our current understanding of pediatric procedural pain.

Key Concepts from Social Learning Theory

Self-efficacy is a key mechanism for understanding pain; pain perception is mediated via perceived self-efficacy of one's ability to manage the pain (Bandura, 1997). According to Bandura (1977b; 1997), self-efficacy is the primary cognitive mechanism that facilitates action. The ability of individuals to believe in their own effectiveness determines how well they will cope with difficult situations. Bandura states "Perceived self-efficacy not only reduces anticipatory fears and inhibits but, through expectations of eventual success it affects coping efforts once they are initiated (Bandura, 1977a, p. 80)." Expectations about one's personal efficacy are based on four sources of experience including performance accomplishments, vicarious experience, verbal persuasion, and emotional arousal, each with its own valance that results from behavioral enactment. Performance accomplishments are the most reliable source of efficacy expectations. These accomplishments are the most influential because they provide the most authentic evidence that one can succeed. Participant modeling is one mode that enhances procedural accomplishments and is one of the most influential tools for raising self-efficacy beliefs. Modeling of threatening activities or joint performance with therapists can reduce the fear of an aversive activity (Bandura, 1977a, 1977b). Of the sources of self efficacy, verbal persuasion, often enacted through suggestion or exhoration, is a weaker source of self efficacy because of its low reliance on behavioral enactment.

Procedural pain is especially amenable to a social learning perspective because of the role that anticipatory anxiety and avoidance plays in the pain and distress responses. From a social learning perspective, avoidant or distress behaviors (often seen in procedural pain) are viewed as disruptions in perceived inefficacy in coping that facilitates anticipatory anxiety and avoidant behavior (Bandura, 1986). According to this view, children avoid medical procedures or display anticipatory anxiety because they believe that they will be unable to manage difficult parts of the procedure. …

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