This study documents the extent to which child-related and parenting stress vary during the early childhood period among mothers of children with developmental disabilities. The degree to which specific aspects of the family environment predict stress levels measured at age 3 years and 5 years, after controlling for child characteristics and family income, is also investigated. The Parenting Stress Index was completed by 79 mothers of children with developmental disabilities at three time points: (1) within 1 month of the child's entry into an early intervention program (T1); (2) within 1 month of the child's third birthday (T3); and (3) within 1 month of the child's fifth birthday (T5). Data on child characteristics and family income as well as measures of the family environment (i.e., negative life events, cohesion, and family support) were gathered at both T1 and T3. Repeated measures analysis of variance was used to assess whether there was significant change in the child-related and parenting stress scores across the three time points. Two sets of hierarchical regression equations were also analyzed. The first examined which child, family, and family environment characteristics assessed at T1 predicted stress at T3. The second identified the predictors of T5 stress based on independent variables measured at T3. Child-related stress increased significantly across the three time points, whereas parenting stress remained fairly stable. By age 5 years, one-third of the mothers had child-related stress scores above the clinical cutoff point. Regression analyses revealed the importance of the family environment in predicting both stress outcomes. The only statistically significant predictor of child-related stress at T3 was family cohesion, whereas parenting stress at T3 was predicted by income, cohesion, and family support. The predictors of both child-related and parenting stress at T5 were the same. Greater family cohesion and fewer negative life events predicted lower stress scores at T5. The significant increase in child-related stress during the early childhood period warrants attention by pediatricians, educators, and other professionals who must evaluate the needs of families of children with disabilities for supportive services. Aspects of the family environment were shown to be critical and consistent determinants of both child-related and parenting stress throughout the early childhood period. This finding suggests that pediatricians, in particular, must assess more than simply the diagnosis or the cognitive impairment of the child with a disability to make informed decisions about the frequency with which they should see particular families and whether referral to other services is necessary.
Address for reprints: Marji Erickson Warfield, Department of Pediatrics, University of Massachusetts Medical Center, 55 Lake Avenue North, Worcester, MA 01655.
© 1999 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.