Associate Professor Rondalyn V. Whitney, the director and founding chair of Clarkson University's occupational therapy program, has written a paper on how mothers raising a child with autism can manage stress through emotional disclosure in journal writing.
The article appears in the December 2014 Issue of the Journal for Autism and Developmental Disorders.
These mothers can get burned out because if there is no one there to help them, Whitney said, they can't get out of the house to participate in any interventions for themselves. She compared the situation to the oxygen mask advisory on airplanes: mothers need to help themselves first before they can help others.
"High maternal stress causes paternal stress, and high maternal stress decreases the child's ability to benefit from treatment," she said.
As a result, Whitney said she wanted to provide an intervention that is available to mothers where they often already are--online.
By allowing mothers to dump their feelings into an online journal, Whitney said she observed a decrease in stress and an improvement in the relationship between the mother and child. She said the journal gives mothers a safe place to talk about any negative feelings they may have without having an impact on the child, and this lets them reframe their problems and work toward finding solutions.
"There was a shift in what the mothers attributed the stress to," she said. "Instead of saying, 'My stress is due to being a mother,' it shifts to, 'I have a stressful life.'"
Whitney said the journal-writing sessions focused on emotional disclosure through the act of writing itself, and the mothers did not receive feedback on what they wrote in the journals. She said the next step in her research would be to do a quantitative analysis of the common themes in their journals.
Whether or not mothers perceive they have support is a big predictor of stress, Whitney said. Scenarios that can lead to the mother feeling isolated include the father being unavailable, the mother feeling unappreciated, the mother being estranged from her family due to the child's behavior, the mother being unable to socialize with friends or the mother believing no one else can keep her child safe.
"The mothers really love these children, but they feel alone in that understanding of their child," she said."
Whitney said she looks forward to collaborating with other departments at Clarkson to study the physiological systems of the participants. Interdisciplinary research would allow researchers to connect more of the dots to better understand maternal stress with the goal of increasing vitality and decreasing fatigue in individuals.
"If people can really comprehend what's happening to them, if they find meaning in it and find tools for managing it, they are healthy and resilient," she said. "Journal writing is one of their tools in their toolkit, and it helps them find meaningful coping strategies."
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