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Mindfulness benefits parents of adult children with developmental disabilities

CAMH Discovers: News from CAMH Research and the Campbell Family Mental Health Research Institute
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​Mindfulness benefits parents of adult children with developmental disabilities

When CAMH Clinician Scientist
Dr. Yona Lunsky talks about the unique challenges faced by the parents of adult children with developmental disabilities, she uses the analogy of being on an airplane when the flight attendant is giving instructions for what to do in an emergency. Parents with children on board are told that if the oxygen masks fall from the ceiling, they should put their own mask on first.

"If they don't put the oxygen mask on, they can't help their kids," says Dr. Lunsky.

That appeal to those stressed-out parents to look after their own health and wellness needs was one of the motivating factors behind her most recent study, published in April 2017 in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

Expanding on her previous work on the well-being of parents with adult children with developmental disabilities and mental health needs, Dr. Lunsky's team took a closer look at the impact of mindfulness on those caregivers. Parents seeking help or services for their adult children were divided into two groups over a period of six weeks. One group participated in a weekly support and information group, and learned about resources and services available for their adult children. The other participated in a group-based mindfulness intervention. 

Mindfulness session

Sustained change

"The parents in the mindfulness group reported reductions in terms of depression and stress, whereas the parents in the other group did not," says Dr. Lunsky. "And the change was sustained over time. The parents in the mindfulness group improved, and they kept those improvements."

The experience was so positive for some of the participating parents that, more than two years after their experience in the study, they are still organizing mindfulness meetings among themselves.

"My analogy is, if I was a cup, it was filled right to the brim," says Lee Steel, one of the parents in the study. "So even if a small issue came up, I would just spill over."

Steel, whose 25-year-old son has autism, found herself struggling to find the right supports to help him after he became an adult and was no longer in school. But when she ended up in the mindfulness group, she soon realized that she had not been paying attention to her own health and wellness. 

Her introduction to mindfulness changed all that.

"I am taking more active steps about self-care than I had ever given myself permission to do before," says Steel. "I didn't know that part of being a good parent was to have a life, have my own interests. Over the years that really took a back seat. I felt like being a good person, being a good parent, was all about what I could do for somebody else."

Healthier parents

Dr. Lunsky believes that for parents like Lee, who often feel helpless about the present and fearful for the future, mindfulness can help them become better, healthier parents.

"The approach of teaching parents to be more mindful helps them in terms of their interactions with their children, and it also helps them cope with ongoing stress that can't, in itself, be immediately resolved," says Dr. Lunsky.

The study was done in partnership with DSO Toronto at Surrey Place Centre, Community Living Toronto, York University and the University of Warwick in the U.K.​​

Dr. Yona Lunsky



CAMH's Dr. Yona Lunsky and parents who took part in mindfulness groups explain how mindfulness helps caregivers. 

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