Peer-led intervention can help reduce stress, depression and anxiety in moms of children with disabilities, according to a new study published in Pediatrics. Researchers from Vanderbilt University studied the effects of two different peer-led treatment programs and found that peer support has its benefits.
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Parents experience a wide variety of shifting emotions when a child is diagnosed with a developmental disability, and rightfully so. Some feel overwhelmed by the information and don't know where or how to begin, no matter how many "treatment plans" are created for them. Others feel sadness, grief and/or anger. Why us? Why my child? Why will this sweet little baby have to struggle when others don't? Some initially skip the emotional reaction and go into problem-solving mode. Lining up therapies, doctors and other specialists gives some parents a feeling of control over the unknown. And there are a lot of unknowns when it comes to developmental disabilities. There are patterns and symptoms and available treatments, but you can't know how the disability will affect your child until your child begins to grow and develop. The gray area can feel massive and overwhelming.

Long story short: It's a lot to manage, and no mom should stand alone.

No matter how parents react to that initial diagnosis, stress, depression and anxiety are common among mothers of children with developmental disabilities. From lack of resources to financial strain to social isolation to meeting the needs of the entire family to physical and emotional exhaustion, parents of children with developmental disabilities face numerous stressors on any given day. And that doesn't even take sleep disturbances or meeting the minute-to-minute needs of the child… and the other children in the house. Long story short: It's a lot to manage, and no mom should stand alone.

The study

New research from Vanderbilt University, and published in Pediatrics, found peer-led interventions that target parental well-being can help reduce stress, anxiety and depression in mothers of children with disabilities. The study placed nearly 250 mothers of children with autism or other developmental disabilities into two different treatment programs. One group practiced Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), while the other used the Positive Adult Development (PAD) approach. The MBSR approach relies more on physical stress reductions techniques such as breathing exercises, meditation and gentle movement. The PAD approach is more cognitive in nature and relies more on exercises such as practicing gratitude. Both groups were led by supervised peer mentors, all mothers of children with disabilities.

Peer support helps

Prior to placement in the programs, 85 percent of the study participants had significantly elevated stress, 48 percent were clinically depressed, and 41 percent had anxiety disorders. While the mothers in the MBSR group saw the greatest overall improvements, both the MBSR and PAD treatments led to reductions in stress, depression and anxiety, as well as improved sleep and better life satisfaction. Mothers in both groups also showed fewer dysfunctional parent-child interactions.

Parenting a child with a disability can be lonely and isolating at times. The needs of the child can feel all-consuming, leaving little time for parents to figure out how to help.

Parenting a child with a disability can be lonely and isolating at times. The needs of the child can feel all-consuming, leaving little time for parents to figure out how to help. Support groups help parents connect with other parents experiencing similar emotions and situations, but this research shows the peer-led intervention to help parents learn to cope can be very powerful. It makes good sense. The peer leaders all received four months of training prior to leading the groups, and they all have children with disabilities. Not only were they trained to teach stress reduction, but they understand the unique stressors of these moms. That is crucial. It's one to thing to listen and empathize, but when a person truly understands the sources of stress and the range of emotions experienced on a daily, sometimes even hourly, basis, mothers feel understood and supported.

Stress snowballs

Children with developmental disabilities do have a lot of needs, but so do their parents. All too often parents push their needs to the back burner to attend to the ever-present needs of their children. Mobilizing support for parents is critical. Stress snowballs. It might feel like parents of children with developmental disabilities spend their days fending off small stressors and putting out fires, but problem-solving the small stuff isn't the same as coping with it. When people don't address their stressors and learn how to manage and cope with them, their stressors grow in size. That's where anxiety and depressive disorders come into play.

It's important to make time to cope with stress. Visualization exercises, deep belly breathing and gentle movement are all stress reduction techniques that can be done at home and in a short amount of time. Journaling, listening buddies and daily exercise are also beneficial. If you find that your stress level continues to feel elevated and you experience symptoms of anxiety and/or depression, nothing beats talk therapy. Seek help from a licensed mental health practitioner before your stress overwhelms you.

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