Creating opportunities for parent empowerment: program effects on the mental health/coping outcomes of critically ill young children and their mothers

Bernadette Mazurek Melnyk, Linda Alpert-Gillis, Nancy Fischbeck Feinstein, Hugh F Crean, Jean Johnson, Eileen Fairbanks, Leigh Small, Jeffrey Rubenstein, Margaret Slota, Beverly Corbo-Richert
Pediatrics 2004, 113 (6): e597-607

OBJECTIVE: Increasing numbers of children in the United States (ie, approximately 200 children per 100,000 population) require intensive care annually, because of advances in pediatric therapeutic techniques and a changing spectrum of pediatric disease. These children are especially vulnerable to a multitude of short- and long-term negative emotional, behavioral, and academic outcomes, including a higher risk of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and a greater need for psychiatric treatment, compared with matched hospitalized children who do not require intensive care. In addition, the parents of these children are at risk for the development of PTSD, as well as other negative emotional outcomes (eg, depression and anxiety disorders). There has been little research conducted to systematically determine the effects of interventions aimed at improving psychosocial outcomes for critically ill children and their parents, despite recognition of the adverse effects of critical care hospitalization on the nonphysiologic well-being of patients and their families. The purpose of this study was to evaluate the effects of a preventive educational-behavioral intervention program, the Creating Opportunities for Parent Empowerment (COPE) program, initiated early in the intensive care unit hospitalization on the mental health/psychosocial outcomes of critically ill young children and their mothers.

DESIGN: A randomized, controlled trial with follow-up assessments 1, 3, 6, and 12 months after hospitalization was conducted with 174 mothers and their 2- to 7-year-old children who were unexpectedly hospitalized in the pediatric intensive care units (PICUs) of 2 children's hospitals. The final sample of 163 mothers ranged in age from 18 to 52 years, with a mean of 31.2 years. Among the mothers reporting race/ethnicity, the sample included 116 white (71.2%), 33 African American (20.3%), 3 Hispanic (1.8%), and 2 Indian (1.2%) mothers. The mean age of the hospitalized children was 50.3 months. Ninety-nine children (60.7%) were male and 64 (39.3%) were female. The major reasons for hospitalization were respiratory problems, accidental trauma, neurologic problems, and infections. Fifty-seven percent (n = 93) of the children had never been hospitalized overnight, and none had experienced a previous PICU hospitalization.

INTERVENTIONS: Mothers in the experimental (COPE) group received a 3-phase educational-behavioral intervention program 1) 6 to 16 hours after PICU admission, 2) 2 to 16 hours after transfer to the general pediatric unit, and 3) 2 to 3 days after their children were discharged from the hospital. Control mothers received a structurally equivalent control program. The COPE intervention was based on self-regulation theory, control theory, and the emotional contagion hypothesis. The COPE program, which was delivered with audiotapes and matching written information, as well as a parent-child activity workbook that facilitated implementing the audiotaped information, focused on increasing 1) parents' knowledge and understanding of the range of behaviors and emotions that young children typically display during and after hospitalization and 2) direct parent participation in their children's emotional and physical care. The COPE workbook, which was provided to parents and children after transfer from the PICU to the general pediatric unit, contained 3 activities to be completed before discharge from the hospital, ie, 1) puppet play to encourage expression of emotions in a nonthreatening manner, 2) therapeutic medical play to assist children in obtaining some sense of mastery and control over the hospital experience, and 3) reading and discussing Jenny's Wish, a story about a young child who successfully copes with a stressful hospitalization.

OUTCOME MEASURES: Primary outcomes included maternal anxiety, negative mood state, depression, maternal beliefs, parental stress, and parent participation in their children's care, as well as child adjustment, which was assessed with the Behavioral Assessment System for Children (parent form). RESn (parent form).

RESULTS: COPE mothers reported significantly less parental stress and participated more in their children's physical and emotional care on the pediatric unit, compared with control mothers, as rated by nurses who were blinded with respect to study group. In comparison with control mothers, COPE mothers reported less negative mood state, less depression, and fewer PTSD symptoms at certain follow-up assessments after hospitalization. In addition, COPE mothers reported stronger beliefs regarding their children's likely responses to hospitalization and how they could enhance their children's adjustment, compared with control mothers. COPE children, in comparison with control children, exhibited significantly fewer withdrawal symptoms 6 months after discharge, as well as fewer negative behavioral symptoms and externalizing behaviors at 12 months. COPE mothers also reported less hyperactivity and greater adaptability among their children at 12 months, compared with control mothers. One year after discharge, a significantly higher percentage of control group children (25.9%) exhibited clinically significant behavioral symptoms, compared with COPE children (2.3%). In addition, 6 and 12 months after discharge, significantly higher percentages of control group children exhibited clinically significant externalizing symptoms (6 months, 14.3%; 12 months, 22.2%), compared with COPE children (6 months, 1.8%; 12 months, 4.5%).

CONCLUSIONS: The findings of this study indicated that mothers who received the COPE program experienced improved maternal functional and emotional coping outcomes, which resulted in significantly fewer child adjustment problems, in comparison with the control group. With the increasing prevalence of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and externalizing problems among children and the documented lack of mental health screening and early intervention services for children in this country, the COPE intervention could help protect this high-risk population of children from developing these troublesome problems. As a result, the mental health status of children after critical care hospitalization could be improved. With routine provision of the COPE program in PICUs throughout the country, family burdens and costs associated with the mental health treatment of these problems might be substantially reduced.

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