It gets easier with time
Having a child with a disability takes a toll on parents’ emotional and physical wellbeing, but over time
parents adapt, a major new study finds.

The study — published in the Journal of Health and Behaviour — shows that as parents of children with disabilities age, their health more closely mirrors that of parents of typically developing children.

“There is a significant difference in the emotional and physical health of parents of children with disabilities, but the gap narrows in older ages and for emotional health virtually disappears,” says lead investigator Jung-Hwa Ha, an assistant professor of social work at the University of Chicago. “What’s important is the resiliency of parents over time.”

The researchers analyzed data from the Study of Midlife in the United States (MIDUS) — a randomized, population-based sample of men and women across a 50-year age range — to compare the emotional and physical wellbeing of 296 parents of children with developmental or mental-health problems with a group of 1,393 parents whose children didn’t have disabilities.

Respondents completed a mail survey and phone interview that measured how frequently they had negative emotions such as sadness, anxiety and hopelessness; their overall psychological wellbeing; and their number of physical symptoms — including headaches, backaches and trouble getting to sleep.

“There were higher levels of negative emotions and (physical) symptoms in parents of children with disabilities,” Jung-Hwa says. However, wellbeing in older parents of kids with disabilities was similar to that of the comparison group.

The authors suggest that adaptation and maturity play a role. While the unexpected birth of a child with disabilities may crush young parents, “over time they find joy with their child, adapt to their role as a caregiver and adjust their expectations,” Jung-Hwa says. And older parents may simply be more mature and “better able to deal with the everyday stresses of having a child with a disability.”

The study found no difference between the wellbeing of mothers and fathers of children with disabilities. It did show that working parents had fewer negative emotions and better psychological wellbeing, suggesting that taking a break from caregiving may protect parents from experiencing acute distress.

A weakness of the study is that it didn’t follow the same respondents over time, but looked at a cross- section of people aged 25 to 74. Long-term studies are needed to confirm whether parents of children with disabilities are better able to cope as they age.

In future, Jung-Hwa hopes to look at whether race, religious faith or marital status play a role in helping parents adapt to a child’s disability.


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