Adapting acceptance and commitment therapy for parents of children with life-threatening illness: Pilot study

Kylie Burke, Frank Muscar, Maria McCarthy, Anica Dimovski, Stephen Hearps, Vicki Anderson, Robyn Walser

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74 Citations (Scopus)


We piloted a novel parent-targeted intervention, Take A Breath (TAB), for parents of children diagnosed with a life-threatening illness (LTI) with the aim of reducing parental distress. Parents were assisted to adapt to their child's diagnosis, treatment, and recovery via TAB's combined acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and problem-solving skills training (PSST) approach. Participants were 11 parents of children with a diagnosis of cancer, or who had life-saving cardiac surgery at least 4 months prior. Parents completed questionnaires at pre, post, and 6-month follow-up assessing parent posttraumatic stress symptoms (PTSS), the emotional impact of the child's LTI (e.g., feelings of uncertainty, guilt and sorrow, emotional resources), and psychological elements targeted by the intervention (parental psychological flexibility and mindfulness). Parents reported significant reductions in PTSS and emotional impact from their child's LTI, along with significant improvements in parental psychological flexibility and mindfulness. Effect sizes were medium to large, and improvements were maintained at 6-month follow-up. Our pilot indicates the TAB intervention has promise for preventing or reducing parental distress associated with child LTI and warrants more rigorous evaluation. Although preliminary, these findings suggest that targeting parents' subjective perceptions of their child's LTI may be an effective approach to reducing parental distress. Our results also indicate the potential for such an approach to be adopted across diverse child diagnoses in the acute pediatric setting. Further, our findings provide early indications that ACT combined with PSST is an appropriate therapeutic approach within this context.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)122-127
Number of pages6
JournalFamilies, Systems and Health
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2014
Externally publishedYes


  • Acceptance and commitment therapy
  • Intervention: life threatening childhood illness
  • Parents
  • Posttraumatic stress symptoms

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