Parents of children with disabilities often experience much higher levels of anxiety, depression, and mental illness than parents of children without disabilities. However, there are few targeted programs for assisting with these psychiatric issues, and programs for these parents often focus only on the children in question. For this reason, the development of programs which target parents and help reduce prevalent mental issues is crucial. A study recently released in Pediatrics examines the clinical results of a peer-lead mental health program. Their findings show that these programs can substantially decrease anxiety and depression levels for parents and can also help foster overall well-being for both parents and children.

The Study

Several mothers of children with autism or disabilities were designated as peer mentors and underwent four months of training on intervention program curriculum, among other relevant topics. At the end of these four months, peer mentors lead two different intervention programs: a Positive Adult Development (PAD) program, and a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program. The PAD program focused on cognitive exercises, while the MBSR program consisted of breathing exercises, meditation techniques, and other common anxiety-reducing techniques. Over 200 mothers of children with disabilities were placed randomly into one of these two programs for the study, and went through six weeks of weekly group treatments, lead by their peer mentors.

Pre-program surveys and assessments identified that 85% of the participants experienced elevated stress, 41% had symptoms of anxiety disorders, and 48% were clinically depressed. Head author Elizabeth Dykens also pointed out that “many mothers of children with disabilities have a blunted cortisol response, indicative of chronic stress. They also have shorter telomeres, associated with an advanced cellular aging process, and have poorer sleep quality, which can have deleterious health effects. All of this results in parents who are less available to manage their child's special needs or challenging behaviors."

Promising Results for Parent-Targeted Mental Health Programs

After the six-week study, re-assesment of the participants indicated that both of the programs lead to significant decreases in symptoms of anxiety and depression. Participants also reported highly improved sleep and higher overall life satisfaction, along with much fewer dysfunctional parent-child interactions. Mothers in the MBSR program saw slightly better results than the PAD program, but both programs showed signs of continuing improvement in follow-up sessions,and displayed sustained improvement for over six months after the study.

The results of the study not only emphasize a need for programs targeting the parents of disabled children, but also provide promising results for the outcomes of such programs, especially when they are lead by peers with similar experiences.

Date of original publication:


E. M. Dykens, M. H. Fisher, J. L. Taylor, W. Lambert, N. Miodrag. Reducing Distress in Mothers of Children With Autism and Other Disabilities: A Randomized Trial. PEDIATRICS, 2014; 134 (2): e454 DOI: 10.1542/peds.2013-3164