With children with ADHD, it’s the excessive energy and acting out that parents find stressful.
Dr. Christine Siegel
Title: Associate Dean of the Graduate School of Education
& Allied Professions
Hometown: Fairfield, Connecticut
Parenting an adolescent can be a stressful experience. As the teen makes the transition from dependent child to independent young adult there are multiple homework assignments to complete, and a whole new social scene to navigate.
When that adolescent has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), he or she might experience heightened challenges with the organization, long-term planning, and goal-setting necessary to get through the day. And that can cause a whole new level of stress on the parent expecting a more “typical” transition.
“Many parents tell me that they are surprised to find they have to check backpacks and follow up on homework assignments for their teens in 10th and 11th grade,” said Dr. Christine Siegel, who, with a group of dedicated student assistants, is researching stress in parents of adolescents with ADHD. “Many worry about whether or not to allow their son or daughter to get a driver’s license. Many say that their son or daughter needed more than four years to finish high school or college.
“With children with ADHD, it’s the excessive energy and acting out that parents find stressful. As they move into the adolescent years – from 12 to 21 – it’s the absence of age-appropriate behavior that seems to cause parental stress.”
Though conservative estimates indicate ADHD affects three to seven percent of all school-age youth, much of the research on the disorder is focused on young children. Little attention has been paid to the experiences of adolescents and their parents and even less is known about effective supports for this group. Thanks to two grants totaling $15,000 from the Earl W. and Hildagund A. Brinkman Foundation, Dr. Siegel’s been able to create a support group for parents, offer tuition remission for graduate student researchers, buy computer and video equipment, and cover some of the expenses for the research group when they travel to present at conferences.
“We are very grateful for the support the grant has provided,” said Dr. Siegel, associate dean of the Graduate School of Education and Allied Professions. “It’s rewarding to know someone values your work.”
Dr. Siegel first began studying parents of adolescents with ADHD in 2005, when a couple of her students, both mothers of children with ADHD, suggested it. One in particular wanted to pursue the topic for her master’s thesis. By spring of the following year they began the project, initially studying how ADHD in adolescents impacted families. During 2006-07, they surveyed 200 parents and found those with adolescents with ADHD, especially mothers, did show higher and more consistent levels of stress in their lives than parents of adolescents without the disorder. “Mothers with higher levels of stress experience fewer feelings of expertise in their role as mother, whereas mothers with lower stress levels feel more expert and competent about their parenting.”
By 2008-09, Dr. Siegel and her researchers did in-depth, videotaped interviews with 20 parents to perform a qualitative analysis of the issue and consider specific, targeted interventions that might lessen their stress and boost confidence in their parenting skills. Earlier that year, they also started a pilot support group for some parents and are currently developing protocols for running support groups specifically for this population. In Spring 2011 they will begin cognitive behavior therapy techniques, which help parents reframe their thinking, and suggest opportunities for self-care, such as journaling or meditation to reduce stress.
While the research will ultimately help parents and the professionals who treat them, it has also been a boon for Dr. Siegel’s advanced graduate students in school psychology and applied psychology. She meets weekly with her researchers and they’ve gained experience reviewing literature, collecting and analyzing data, organizing workshops, interviewing, and presenting their results. “Graduates of the team have gone on to pursue advanced graduate degrees in clinical psychology and clinical social work; others are working the field as school psychologists,” she said. “They’re very dedicated and motivated.”
In future years, Dr. Siegel hopes to expand her sample group and broaden its diversity to include people of different socio-economic and ethnic groups. It may expand to consider parents of children with autism, learning disabilities, and chronic illnesses. “We’re only at the beginning now,” she said. “There are years and years of work to do.”
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