Mothers of teens with autism report higher levels of stress, though optimism can be a buffer
New research from UCR’s Jan Blacher suggests a positive outlook can mitigate the psychological effects of parenting a child with autism.
Anyone who has ever survived being a teenager should be well aware that parenting a teenager can be no easy feat. But factor in a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or intellectual disability (ID), and you’ll likely have the recipe for a unique set of challenges to the entire family unit.
Within such families, the impacts of raising children with autism hit mothers especially hard, resulting in what Jan Blacher, a distinguished professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Riverside, and UCLA’s Bruce L. Baker refer to as “collateral effects.”
In a study recently published online in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, the researchers found that mothers of teenagers with ASD or ID reported higher levels of stress and other negative psychological symptoms — think depression or anxiety — than mothers of teenagers with typical development, or TD.
Those levels climbed even higher when teenagers with ASD or ID also showed signs of clinical-level disruptive behavior disorders.
“The most common disruptive behavior disorder is attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, but children with autism can also show signs of oppositional defiant disorder, depression, and anxiety,” Blacher said. “The disorders that are most disruptive to parents are those we describe as ‘acting out’ disorders and involve behaviors like not following rules, hitting, screaming, arguing, lashing out, and breaking things.”
Still, the researchers emphasized that parents who face childrearing challenges need not resign themselves to lifetimes of mounting stress. The mothers they studied who demonstrated more resilience had one thing in common: an optimistic outlook on life.
In their cases, a more positive outlook on life became a buffer against parenting-related stressors.
“It’s in the face of stress when optimism really becomes important,” Blacher said. “A mom that has a high level of optimism is going to be able to better weather stress and be better prepared mentally for the challenges ahead.”
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