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Distress Adjustment Varies Among Parents of Pediatric Patients

While a pediatric cancer diagnosis can obviously impact the child experiencing the disease, psychosocial effects can differentiate how each parent is affected, too.
BY Brielle Urciuoli
PUBLISHED September 21, 2018
While a pediatric cancer diagnosis can obviously impact the child experiencing the disease, psychosocial effects can differentiate how each parent is affected, too, according to a recent Canadian study published in the journal PLOS One.

Previous studies have suggested that the psychosocial impact of a pediatric cancer diagnosis on a parent goes beyond the end of treatment – both from an individual and a relationship-based standpoint.

With no long-term follow-up, the researchers aimed to describe parents’ adjustment – or the psychological distress and relationship satisfaction – following their child’s cancer journey; to describe the perceived impact their child’s cancer had on a couples’ relationship; and to identify to what extent the perceived impact of cancer on the couple was related to both parents’ long-term adjustment.

“It was important to conduct this research in order to extend our examination of psychosocial status and relationship adjustment of parents of children with cancer into the survivorship period,” study author Willow Burns, Ph.D., assistant professor at Bishop's University, said in an interview with CURE.  

The study surveyed 103 sets of parents whose child was a survivor (at least five years after their initial diagnosis) of acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL).

“The study was also the first to examine dyadic adjustment and relationship change experiences of parents of childhood ALL survivors using an interdependence model,” said Burns.

Parents’ distress levels were normal, according to the researchers. General distress occurred in 6.8 percent of mothers and 7.8 percent of fathers, and depression in 2.9 percent and 6.8 percent, respectively. In addition, somatization – meaning the occurrence of medical issues with no known cause – occurred in 13.6 percent and 9.7 percent of mothers and fathers, and relationship distress in 21.4 percent and 20.4 percent, respectively.

Both parents typically agreed on their reported relationship satisfaction, as well as the perceived nature of relationship changes following their child’s illness.

According to dyadic analyses (a type of social network in which there are two individuals that are linked), mothers’ adjustment was related to their own perceived relationship changes, whereas fathers’ adjustment was primarily related to their partner’s perceptions.

“Overall, parents of childhood ALL survivors were well-adjusted, with only a small subgroup reporting clinical distress during the survivorship period,” Burns said. “We also found that mothers’ adjustment was only related to her own perceptions of changes in relationship dynamics, while fathers’ adjustment was related to both their own perceptions and those of their partner.”

Men and women tend to handle stress differently, and that can account for the difference in distress levels between men and women, according to the researchers.

“It is possible that the different rates of psychosocial and relationship distress among mothers and fathers reflects differences in how they cope with their child’s illness,” Burns added. “Generally, mothers tend to turn to others for social support, whereas fathers tend to turn to their partner for support,”

Moving forward, findings from this research point toward the value of psychosocial interventions not only for children facing the disease, but for their parents or caregivers, too.

“Our findings highlight the importance of providing parents with routine assessment of their psychosocial status, both during their child’s cancer treatment and during the survivorship period,” Burns said. “Providing couples-based support programs may assist partners in addressing their individual and interpersonal difficulties and may promote stronger long-term relationship satisfaction and psychosocial well-being for these parents.”

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