Glidden Discusses Resilience of Parents of Children with Disabilities

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On the afternoon of Feb. 24, Distinguished Professor of Psychology Laraine Glidden presented her research in a lecture entitled “Crisis and Recovery: Predicting Resilience Across the Lifespan” as part of Psi Chi’s Discovering Psychology series.

Glidden presented on the background, methodology, results and conclusions of her study, which has been ongoing for over two decades. In Glidden’s research, the effects of having at least one child with an intellectual or developmental disability on both birth and adoptive parents have been studied.

There are two models used to explain the effects of having a child with disabilities. The first model is called the Chronic Sorrow Model, and was proposed in the early 1960’s. Glidden explained this model by saying, “No matter how positively the parents might present themselves, they always were masking the inevitable lifelong sorrow they experience when they have a child with a severe disability.”

However, within the past two decades, there has been a shift to the view of the more positive consequences of having a child with disabilities. The alternative model is called the Crisis and Recovery Model. When the child is born, the parents experience an immediate reaction of crisis. “The child is not what [the parents were] idealizing when they were planning for children,” said Glidden. “But in fact, that crisis may be short-lived and there is recovery to pre-crisis levels of depression.”

This second model is part of the Positive Psychology movement. “It is important to not only study the bad things about what happens to us, but also the positive things that happen to us,” said Glidden.

In her study, Glidden focused on two different variables that can influence the outcome of having a child with a disability: family context and personality. Family context determines how the child came to be in a particular family, like from natural birth or adoption. The personality of the parents is a possible mediating variable in how the parents adjust, adapt, and cope to being new parents of a child with disabilities.

Glidden’s study was a 25-year longitudinal study with data collected at five different time points. Data was collected in a series of ways: through interviews, observations, and questionnaires. Some information was self-reported by the parents while other information was collected from peers, teachers, outside records, or spouses.

The study began in 1989 with data collected from 249 families and ended 25 years later with a total of 89 families due to attrition (the process of families dropping out of a longitudinal study for various reasons). Even so, Glidden stated she is “confident that the sample, though smaller, is still representative.” There was huge socioeconomic diversity and also variance among the highest level of education the parents had attained (anywhere from an eighth grade level to receiving an MD or PhD).

Most of the children used in the sample (37 percent) were diagnosed with Down syndrome. This is because children with this disability are normally more similar to each other than children with other kinds of disabilities. Also, biological parents of children with Down syndrome are highly likely to put their child up for adoption because Down syndrome can be diagnosed before birth.

Glidden measured the depression levels and took personality surveys of the children’s parents at five different time points and determined that adoptive mothers “demonstrate significantly lower depression at child entry than birth mothers do at child disability diagnosis.”

This difference could be caused by the existential crisis that many birth mothers go through when they have a child with disabilities. For example, they may ask, “Why is this happening to me? Did I do something wrong during my pregnancy? Is there something wrong with my genes?” These kinds of questions can all lead to higher levels of depression.

Also, more surprisingly, Glidden said, “These differences fade to insignificance over time, primarily because birth mother depression declines.” By the fifth time point, there were no significant differences between the depression levels of birth versus adoptive parents.

Glidden also found that personality factors, like neuroticism, was a strong predictor of depression at every time point during the study.

In conclusion, Glidden said, “The Chronic Sorrow model is not confirmed… Resilience is an ordinary and typical response, and most families do well.” Thus, the Crisis and Recovery model makes more sense when attempting to explain the adaptive process parents must go through when living with a child with disabilities.

Junior Katie Grein had been involved with the study, working as one of Glidden’s research assistants. “Jesse Ludwig and I have only become involved in this project comparatively recently, but we’ve been on the project for two years now, and it’s been exciting to see what results have come from the most recent wave of data collection.” she said. “I had not expected to see birth families show significantly better outcomes than adoptive families, in the area of depression or elsewhere, nor did I think that characteristics measured over a decade ago could still predict family’s well-being now.”

“I enjoyed the lecture, and the information learned can be applicable in my life as a future teacher,” said senior Jackie Reymann. “One conclusion of the research that I found promising is the fact that ‘resilience is an ordinary and typical response to an extraordinary situation,’ so we will all be okay in the end, even in the worst of times. It was great to hear the procedure and results of such an involved longitudinal study, especially from the researcher!”

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