Parental criticism can lead to adolescent somatic symptoms, a new study has found.

Researchers from Yale and the Karolinksa Institute in Sweden surveyed over 1,500 Swedish parents who were twins of the same gender and had similarly aged adolescent children. They investigated whether the observed association between parental criticism and teenage somatic symptoms — physical issues such as vomiting, headaches or nausea that have no discernible cause — was causally related. Their work, conducted in collaboration between multiple universities in the U.S. and researchers in Stockholm, confirmed that parental criticism is not only correlated with teenage somatic symptoms, but, in fact, causes them.

“It’s gratifying in science to get a much clearer, fixed finding. What people have thought for some time seems to actually be the case,” said David Reiss, study senior author and professor of psychiatry at the Yale Child Study Center, in reference to the group’s discovery that parental criticism leads to adolescent somatic symptoms.

Though the association between highly critical parenting and adolescent somatic symptoms has long been observed, it was previously unknown if the relationship was causal. Using twin parents to control for genetic factors and study environmental influences, researchers were able to isolate parenting style, instead of having to focus on genetic factors that may be at play. With nature held constant, it became clear that nurture was the driving force behind the symptoms.

That knowledge will make interventions easier, said Dorothy Stubbe, professor of psychiatry at the Yale Child Study Center, who was not involved in the study.

“If you have genetics, it’s harder to fight what comes naturally,” she said. “If it’s behavior, [that] can be fairly easily changed. This suggests there’s a very doable intervention that can be extremely helpful.”

Stubbe envisions parenting interventions, such as parent management teaching, that instruct parents to focus on their child’s strengths, so their children can more easily build self-esteem. Reiss sees something similar — a sort of family check-up when it comes to parenting adolescents.

But the issue is not as simple as avoiding criticisms of children, insisted Hyun Jung Kim, professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine, who was not involved in the study. There is still so much left unexplained, she said, such as the mechanism by which the criticism translates into the physiological symptoms, although it is suspected that this occurs through neuroendocrinological pathways.

“It’s very easy to criticize parents, [but] parenting is difficult,” said Kim.

She said she thinks it is important to remember how interrelated the mind and body are, and that any psychological issues that may come extremely critical parenting are going to lead to physical reactions.

Though the results were significant, it is important to remember that more research is required for the results to be generalized to other populations — and not just Swedish parents, said study senior author Briana Horwitz, professor of psychology at California State University, Fullerton.


Correction, April 17

A previous version of this article incorrectly spelled the name of Briana Horwitz.