Acute stress in parents of children newly diagnosed with cancer

Pediatr Blood Cancer. 2008 Feb;50(2):289-92. doi: 10.1002/pbc.21262.


Objective: Acute Stress Disorder (ASD) and subclinical symptoms of acute stress (SAS) may be a useful framework for understanding the psychological reactions of mothers and fathers of children newly diagnosed with a pediatric malignancy.

Patients and methods: Mothers (N = 129) and fathers (N = 72) of 138 children newly diagnosed with cancer completed questionnaires assessing acute distress, anxiety, and family functioning. Demographic data were also gathered. Inclusion criteria were: a confirmed diagnosis of a pediatric malignancy in a child under the age of 18 years without prior chronic or life threatening illness and fluency in English or Spanish.

Results: Descriptive statistics and multiple linear regressions were used to examine predictors of SAS. Fifty-one percent (N = 66) of mothers and 40% (N = 29) of fathers met DSM-IV diagnostic criteria for ASD. The majority of the sample reported experiencing at least one SAS. General anxiety, but not family functioning, was a strong predictor of SAS in both mothers and fathers even after controlling for demographic characteristics.

Conclusions: Immediately following their child's diagnosis of cancer, most mothers and fathers experience SAS, with a subsample meeting criteria for ASD. More anxious parents are at heightened risk of more intense reactions. The findings support the need for evidence-based psychosocial support at diagnosis and throughout treatment for families who are at risk for acute distress reactions.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Caregivers / psychology
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Family Characteristics
  • Fathers / psychology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Male
  • Mothers / psychology*
  • Neoplasms / psychology*
  • Predictive Value of Tests
  • Socioeconomic Factors
  • Stress Disorders, Traumatic, Acute / etiology*
  • Stress Disorders, Traumatic, Acute / psychology