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Research on Mindfulness


Tonight is the start of our Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course for parents of children with special needs. We use a MBSR curriculum designed and researched by Vanderbilt University and based on the foundational work of Jon Kabat-Zinn. In this post, we’ll focus on what the Vanderbilt research team learned in implementing their curriculum.

In diving into the findings, however, we are jumping over a sobering truth laid out in almost every mindfulness research article reviewed: Stress is a big problem for parents of children with autism and it has serious consequences. The statistics are sobering the stories behind them hit eerily close to home. Many of CEA’s early 2019 blog posts and newsletters will discuss parental stress and supports in honest, pragmatic ways that acknowledge how families function together, as a system. As always, we will keep our emphasis on hope, empowerment, and community-building.

For now, let’s find out what the Vanderbilt University’s team learned when they implemented their “Parent Stress Intervention Project”—a project that included two different curricula or approaches to “stress intervention.” They enrolled 243 mothers of children with autism (65%) and other neurodevelopmental disabilities (35%).

How they conducted the research:

The mothers were randomly assigned into one of two groups that met for 6 weeks and were led by trained peer parents. One group, the Positive Adult Development (PAD) group taught ways to balance difficult emotions with positive, affirming ones (using evidence-based methods from positive psychology). A second group, the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) group taught specific techniques for breathing, movement, and meditation from mindfulness research and practice. The participants responded to several questionnaires before, during, at the end, and at 1, 3, and 6 months after the program.

What they found:

  • Mothers in both programs showed “less personal stress and dysfunctional parent-child interactions…[and] less anxiety and depression, and improved sleep and life satisfaction”
  • The last four self-report measures (above) sustained up to six months after the program ended
  • The size of the effects on both groups of mothers were medium to large for depression and anxiety
  • Mothers in the MBSR program showed “significantly greater improvements” than mothers in the PAD program
  • While mothers of all diagnosis types responded similarly, mothers of children with ASD showed less immediate improvements in anxiety

The researchers supposed that the improvements across both of the groups was related to the program’s structure, which integrated practices already known to enhance well-being: The group setting, the peer mentor leadership, and the choice to focus directly on parent stress and needs (versus a more traditional parent training program focused on the needs of the child). The team acknowledged that there wasn’t a control (aka “treatment-free”) group to compare to, however, they pointed to a wealth of research documenting the stressful realities of these parents.

Take-aways and food for thought

So what do we make of all this? Both programs showed a great deal of improvement on several different angles of stress and well-being, with the MBSR program showing the greatest improvements. The social support built into the programs likely did play a role, as did the working with thoughts and feelings (PAD) and the mindfulness exercises (MBSR).

In a nutshell, the research teaches us that 1) How we understand our circumstances matters for our well-being, and 2) Small, daily practices can make a big difference. Marvel at the simplicity of those statements. Amazing, right? How does it feel to read them? Is it easy to believe they’re true? Do you believe they apply to you (or the families you serve) and not just the research participants? Or maybe they seem somehow inaccessible, like they’re taken for granted yet just out of reach. If so, why do you think that is?

Let these two research teachings tumble around in your mind for a week or so. Try to avoid either/or and this-versus-that thinking. Think both/and, as in, “there are ways to acknowledge my own needs and be my child’s best advocate; I can do my best for myself and my child.” Thank you for endeavoring on this thought experiment. We’ll pick up the conversation with some research- and experience-informed perspective on stress and well-being in the next blog post.

Citation: Dykens, E. M., Fisher, M. H., Taylor, J. L., Lambert, W., & Miodrag, N. (2014). Reducing distress in mothers of children with autism and other disabilities: a randomized trial. Pediatrics, peds-2013.

Click here to access article and PDF.

Author: Beth

Beth is a wife, mother, researcher and connector. She has two elementary-aged kids, one who is differently wired with autism. Beth has done graduate work and consulting related to youth development and community engagement. She loves advocating for authentic community engagement and contributions of kids and families impacted by autism. She lives in Hopkins, MN.

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