Christine Beatty, center, is mom to Megan, left, who has Down syndrome and ADHD, and Mia, who has cerebral palsy. Researchers say services are needed to help mothers of children with developmental disabilities manage their own mental health so that they can be good long-term caregivers. (Erika Schultz/Seattle Times/MCT)

Christine Beatty, center, is mom to Megan, left, who has Down syndrome and ADHD, and Mia, who has cerebral palsy. Researchers say services are needed to help mothers of children with developmental disabilities manage their own mental health so that they can be good long-term caregivers. (Erika Schultz/Seattle Times/MCT)

Just six treatment sessions designed to help moms of kids with developmental disabilities manage their stress can go a long way toward reducing depression and anxiety, researchers say.

Parents of children with developmental disabilities often experience greater stress than moms and dads of typically-developing kids. Nonetheless, most interventions target the needs of their children with disabilities exclusively.

Now, researchers say more attention ought to be paid to the unique needs of these parents.

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In a trial of two treatment programs, Elisabeth Dykens of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Research on Human Development and her colleagues found that weekly sessions with trained peer mentors could help moms conquer their stress and, in turn, interact more constructively with their children with disabilities.

For the study published online Monday in the journal Pediatrics, 243 mothers of children with developmental disabilities were randomly assigned to participate in one of two interventions.

Some parents took part in a mindfulness-based stress reduction program which included breathing exercises, deep-belly breathing, meditation and gentle movement. Others participated in a program called positive adult development that focused on exercises promoting gratitude, forgiveness, grace and optimism in order to temper emotions like guilt, worry and pessimism.

Both interventions were led by other mothers of children with disabilities who received four months of training on the curriculums.

At the outset, assessments showed that 85 percent of the mothers had elevated stress, 48 percent were clinically depressed and 41 percent had anxiety disorders. After completing a half-dozen, hour-and-a-half sessions, mothers in both treatment groups experienced less stress, anxiety and depression while reporting better sleep and life satisfaction. The moms also had fewer dysfunctional parent-child interactions, the study found.

Moms in the mindfulness-based stress reduction program improved most significantly, researchers said, though parents in both groups continued to see improvements even six months after the treatment ended, researchers said.

“The well-being of this population is critically important,” Dykens, the study’s lead author, said pointing to the high prevalence of children with developmental disabilities and the many adults who continue to live at home with their parents. “We have a looming public health problem on our hands.”

Researchers said they are planning to conduct a similar study looking at the impact of these peer-led interventions for fathers of children with developmental disabilities.