Parenting a child with autism and/or other disabilities can be rewarding yet stressful. Learning to manage that stress can help moms be more effective parents.
A recent study found that two types of stress reduction classes helped reduce stress, depression and anxiety in mothers of children with neurodevelopmental disabilities.
One technique employed "mindfulness," and the other focused on positive thinking, though overlap occurred with both techniques.
The moms participating in both therapies experienced reduced stress, though the improvements were greater among those learning mindfulness.
The study, led by Elisabeth M. Dykens, PhD, of the Department of Psychology at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, looked at treatments aimed at reducing stress for moms of children with neurodevelopmental disabilities.
The researchers split 243 mothers into two groups: one attended Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction practice and the other attended Positive Adult Development practice.
Mindfulness-based stress reduction teaches meditative techniques for individuals to become more aware of and accepting of their emotions.
The training sessions in this study "taught specific breathing, meditation and movement techniques, including paying attention to the breath; deep belly breathing; the relaxation response; self-observation without self-evaluation; Qigong (gentle movements); and the sitting, body scan and loving-kindness meditations."
The Positive Adult Development practice "emphasized ways to temper such emotions as guilt, conflict, worry and pessimism by identifying and recruiting character strengths and virtues, by using strengths in new ways, and by exercises involving gratitude, forgiveness, grace and optimism."
The mothers participated in 1.5-hour sessions each week for six weeks.
Then they were assessed at six different points for their stress levels, before during and after treatment, including six months later.
About two thirds of the moms (65 percent) had children with autism, and the other third (35 percent) had children with other disabilities.
When the study began, 85 percent of the mothers had very high levels of stress, nearly half (48 percent) were clinically depressed and 41 percent had an anxiety disorder.
After the trainings, the mothers in both groups had fewer symptoms of stress, depression and anxiety.
Mothers in both groups also experienced better sleep and improvements in their life satisfaction, especially with generally feeling less depressed and anxious.
The moms who learned mindfulness techniques experienced greater improvements in their depression and anxiety symptoms and had better sleep and overall well-being.
The sessions were taught by professionals and trained mentors who underwent an online training.
"Future studies are warranted on how trained mentors and professionals can address the unmet mental health needs of mothers of children with developmental disabilities," the authors wrote.
"Doing so improves maternal well-being and furthers their long-term caregiving of children with complex developmental, physical and behavioral needs," they wrote.
The study was published July 21 in the journal Pediatrics. The research was funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences.
One author has participated in grant review panels and given presentations for Autism Speaks. The other authors reported no conflicts of interest.