Accepting emotions reduces depression, stress in parents
By Louise Kinross
Mothers of children with autism reported significant drops in depression and stress and improvements in physical health after participating in acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), according to a study published in the journal Mindfulness today.
Twenty-nine Toronto mothers filled out questionnaires before and after the workshops where they learned to accept—rather than avoid—difficult parenting emotions, think more flexibly and commit to their values.
The falls in depression and stress and gains in physical health seen four weeks after the first two parts of a three-session workshop were maintained at a follow-up eight weeks after the program ended.
The mothers had children with autism aged three to 22, and one-third had more than one child with autism.
More than a decade of research shows parents of kids with disabilities like autism have higher rates of stress and depression and more physical problems than other parents. But few studies have looked at interventions to help parents.
The new study was conducted by clinicians and parents from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, University Health Network, Surrey Place and Extend-A-Family.
The team concludes that ACT may be effective in improving mental and physical health in mothers of children with autism.
The groups were facilitated by one father and two mothers of children with autism who were trained to lead the intervention. BLOOM interviewed Lee Steel, who ran the groups with Kelly Bryce and Dr. Kenneth Fung.
BLOOM: What is ACT?
Lee Steel: It’s different from anything I’ve ever done, and I’ve been doing workshops for 22 years. Usually the focus is to get you to be a better parent by giving you another skill set. But ACT puts the focus on me, as a parent, and my own wellbeing. It’s about caring for the caregiver. It gives me a set of tools to go home and help me look after myself better.
At the core is the idea of psychological flexibility—so that as parents, you create a small gap between reacting and thinking about something in a more flexible way.
My son Eric is 26 now. I was feeling quite exhausted from years of advocacy. I was burning out, and reacting in ways I didn’t want to. ACT’s idea of putting the oxygen mask on myself first—rather than my child—was really applicable to me.
BLOOM: The paper lists one of the principles as acceptance.
Lee Steel: Yes, this is about being able to hold the emotions we’re feeling—including painful emotions—instead of avoiding them, pushing them down or saying ‘I shouldn’t feel this way.” It’s about holding everything with compassion. It’s accepting the way that I am, and the way that I’m feeling.
Sometimes it may be holding two emotions at the same time. Perhaps I want Eric to be independent and accepted and appreciated, but I feel really sad that it’s so hard to find services in the adult world, and to find employment that builds on his strengths.
So I simultaneously desire his independence and hold the thought that it doesn’t come easily, and I’m really sad about that. I don’t run away from those painful feelings.
I don’t do what I did when he was younger—which is to tell myself ‘I just need to apply myself more, work harder, make more calls, do more.’”
BLOOM: I can certainly relate to that feeling that somehow I can never do enough. That the world is telling me that my child is not enough, and that I’m not enough.
Lee Steel: The idea of acceptance is not only about my thoughts and emotions. It’s also about accepting my child the way he or she is. I don’t know what it’s like with other disabilities, but in the autism community, you can get a mixed message that if you work really, really hard, you can change the outcome of your child’s life. That’s an incredible burden.
I have grief now about how I can’t get all of those earlier years with my son back. Instead of slowing down and enjoying the moment, my focus then was on doing more and more and more, and working harder and harder and harder.
BLOOM: I think those ideas of ‘fixing’ disability run through our culture, which is very focused on self-improvement.
Lee Steel: Parents get into comparing their child to this fantasy outcome that isn’t even real. And that negates who my child is and who I am. ACT gets you to look at 'Whose value is this?' It may be a value that's really strong in our culture, but would this be my value?
In ACT, we ask ‘Are we treating ourselves as a problem to be solved, or as a process to be lived and appreciated?’ One slide we show asks ‘Are we a math equation or are we a sunset?”
BLOOM: Another part of ACT is called cognitive defusion.
Lee Steel: That involves separating ourselves from our thoughts. I know in my experience as a parent, I often made a thought into a fact. In ACT, we learn techniques to help us hold our thoughts more lightly, instead of holding them as the truth.
ACT encourages us to see ourselves as an observer of our experience. The way Dr. Fung explains it is he holds one hand open, palm up, and puts the other hand inside of it. ‘We’re the holder, we’re not the content,’ he says. ‘Our experiences can come and go and change, but we’re the flexible holding self, rather than fusing with the contents.’
So instead of beating myself up because I wasn’t as patient as I would have liked, I can say: ‘Okay, I'm having that thought again. I’m tired. What do I need? Maybe I can go to bed earlier. Maybe I need to have a walk. Instead of judging and hurting myself more, I can be kind and compassionate with myself. If I’m compassionate with myself, that will ripple through to my child and to seeing everyone as doing the best they can.
Before ACT, when I was so hard on myself, it just made me more brittle towards other people.
BLOOM: I love that idea of being the container of our thoughts, not the thoughts themselves. How do values factor into this therapy?
Lee Steel: We do an exercise where each parent chooses four values that are important to them. Then they look at their values to see whether their actions are aligned with them. As a parent, this helped me reflect on aspects of my life that I’ve put on a shelf or forgotten about.
For example, let’s say one of my values is self-care. But I’m not doing anything about that. I’m putting everyone else first, I’m not getting enough sleep and I’m not eating right. ACT invites us to think of an action that would move us closer to that value.
We think of a value as being like a north star that can direct you. It’s not about goal setting. It’s about reflecting and asking, ‘If these are my values, are my actions moving me towards them, or away from them?’
BLOOM: Why was it important to have parents of children with autism lead the workshops?
Lee Steel: It gave us a 'short-hand' early on. We didn’t have to create safety because parents knew that I got what they were talking about. You’re not talking about a script, you live it, too.
BLOOM: It's an instant credibility. The study is about parents of children with autism, but I imagine parents of kids with any kind of disability could benefit?
Lee Steel: Yes, the overlapping struggles are the same, no matter what the diagnosis. The last group we did was a mixture of parents with children with different disabilities. My hope is that this work can influence parents at a much younger age than me. I wish I’d had it much earlier on.