Parents of Kids w/Cancer

Problem-Solving Training Helps Moms Of Kids With Cancer

April 17, 2002(Center for the Advancement of Health) -- A mother whose child is diagnosed with cancer can more easily handle the problems she faces if she receives training in problem-solving that is tailored to her needs, a new study indicates.

The training also appears to bolster her sense of well-being by reducing her emotional distress. Mothers whose children face serious illness have lower levels of well-being than mothers in the general population, explains lead author Dr. Olle Jane Z. Sahler at the University of Rochester Medical Center.

They are at particularly high risk for emotional distress immediately after their child's diagnosis. Previous research has shown that this maternal distress affects not only the mother, whose mental and physical health may suffer, but also the child, who is less likely to adjust to the illness as a result.

The study's findings, Sahler says, "indicate that problem-solving skills training can help reduce maternal emotional distress associated with the diagnosis of a life-threatening disease in her child."

Sahler and her colleagues tested the effectiveness of a relatively new type of instruction, which they call problem-solving skills training, in helping these mothers cope and alleviate their emotional distress. The research team's findings appear in the April issue of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics . The researchers recruited 92 mothers at six medical centers whose children had been diagnosed with cancer or a brain tumor within the previous 16 weeks. A mental health professional on the center's staff conducted a routine psychosocial assessment on each woman. In addition, the researchers evaluated each woman's problem-solving approach and mood.

During the following eight weeks, all of the women received the standard psychosocial services provided by their medical centers, such as consultations with social workers. Fifty randomly selected women also attended weekly one-on-one sessions, where they practiced solving problems typically faced by a parent whose child has just been diagnosed with cancer.

A follow-up evaluation three months after the initial assessment revealed that women given both the training and standard services show consistently healthy changes in their problem-solving styles and moods.

When faced with a problem, they are far more likely to remain positive and rational in seeking solutions than they were prior to the training. At the same time, they are slightly less likely than before to act impulsively or try to avoid finding a solution. Moreover, the women who receive both training and standard services tend to experience significant relief from their emotional distress, reporting less anxiety, depression, anger and confusion.

The reactions of women who receive only conventional help, the researchers found, are inconsistent. On the average, the problem-solving styles and moods of these women take a slight turn for the worse.

Sahler envisions similar training being used to help other family members and even health care providers cope with a variety of challenging illnesses. As helpful as the training is, Sahler notes that a slight shift in focus and content might make it even more powerful. The sessions in the present study focused on, and clearly succeeded in, increasing constructive behaviors. Yet it appears that the smaller reduction in the women's unproductive behaviors was responsible for their improved moods.

Future research, she suggests, should therefore "focus on enhancing the effects of [the training] on dysfunctional problem solving while at least maintaining its effects on constructive problem solving."

Funding for the study came from the National Cancer Institute.

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