Maternal Reactions to Children with Mental Retardation

Johanna Shapiro, Jan Blacher, and Steven R. Lopez

Mental retardation has been described as “probably the most dreadful diagnosis a parent can receive” (Fewell, 1986). First-generation research on the impact of child disability and mental retardation on families (usually mothers) presented a bleak picture of stress, burden, depression, social isolation, and psychological dysfunction (Shapiro, 1983). As research became more refined, it was apparent that handicapping conditions and disability per se were not necessarily, in and of themselves, predictors of maternal dysfunction. Rather, a host of mediating and moderating variables, some fixed and some amenable to intervention, appeared to influence the relationship between disability and maladjustment. This line of investigation began to apply complex social, ecological, and stress appraisal-coping models to the study of responses to disability in an effort to understand the interaction between the presence of disability and the development of dysfunction. In general, these models moved away from solely deficit interpretations of adjustment and recognized the possibility of positive maternal adaptation to child disability. Further, they emphasized the interaction and developmental nature of adaptation and attempted to locate the mother within the context of a host of intrapersonal and external factors.

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