Contributors to well-being and stress in parents of autistic children

Parents of autistic children show more problems of stress and well-being than parents of neurotypical children. However, not all parents show these problems. The differences can be due to environmental antecedents, personal antecedents, or mediating processes. The aim of this study was to explain how these factors can predict stress and well-being in parents of autistic children. The study consisted of 37 parents of children with autism and 41 parents of neurotypical children. Our results showed that parents of autistic children have a lower well-being and higher stress. This is due to the parents’ perception of their children’s difficulties, their use of reappraisal, and, in part, due to their children’s autism diagnosis. Future interventions should aim to target those factors.

Parents of autistic children have a higher risk of developing stress and mental health problems in comparison to parents of neurotypical children. Previous studies have repeatedly shown that parents of autistic children show more symptoms of stress and depression than parents of neurotypical children, as well as higher levels of anxiety, mental-health problems, and a decrease of well-being. But those consequences do not apply to all parents of autistic children. So far, no research has concentrated on the factors known to predict stress or that can explain the reason for stress in parents of autistic children. In this study, we aimed to understand why some parents of autistic children experience stress and decrease of well-being, while others do not.

Stress is believed to be an emotional response to an important situation or event which is seen as overwhelming. That means, that stress is the result of environmental aspects, personal aspects, and so-called mediating processes. Viewing stress as a combination of different factors could explain the differences of stress and well-being in the parents.


Environmental antecedents are made up of many different factors such as daily hassles, life events, demands, or available resources. Some of the environmental antecedents influencing the parents’ well-being can be directly related to the daily challenges associated with caring for an autistic child. The parents often need to adapt to a new situation, face some challenges, and they often describe it to be isolating or feeling like they must fight all the way. A lack of understanding from the environment regarding their children’s behavior can increase the negative feelings. The level of negativity and the behavioral problems coming from autistic children can also be a contributing factor. Compared to neurotypical children, negativity levels and behavioral problems are more frequent in autistic children.


Person antecedents refer to a person’s belief systems, their goal hierarchies, or their attributions. They can influence stress, are related to the way people construct meaning to their situation, to what they attribute them, or what belief systems they follow. Those are antecedents that parents of autistic children often seem to struggle with. Previous research found that behavioral problems of autistic children are in direct relationship to increased levels of parental stress. However, the parents’ perception of the emotional and behavioral problems of their children is a stronger indicator for declining mental health and stress in parents, than their children’s autism diagnosis. This might be because the perceived problems cause an additional burden on the parents. Or it could be because the encountered difficulties lead the parents to question their parenting skills.


Mediating processes refer to factors such as coping mechanisms or appraisal, meaning the interpretation or assessment of a situation or experience. Specific coping styles and appraisal styles play an important role in determining the parents’ metal-health and stress levels. Escapism, avoidance, or annoyance, for example, lead to a worse mental health, while distraction, problem solving, and, especially, reappraisal (re-evaluating the situation) lead to more well-being. Previous studies showed that the parents’ way of evaluating potential challenges and regulation of emotions influence their overall well-being and stress in a positive way. However, it is still unclear, if parents of autistic children use the same or other strategies than parents of neurotypical children. While one study found they use more self-control, others found that parents use less strategies to facilitate their emotions. Another study comparing only the mothers, found that mothers of autistic children use more effortful control strategies, such as stopping impulsive behavior or control of attention than mothers of neurotypical children.


The aim of our study was to analyze how different factors related to autism interact with each other and influence the parents’ well-being and stress to understand why some parents experience stress, while others do not. We believe that the parents’ well-being and stress is the result of the three aforementioned factors. Since not all parents of autistic children experience a drop in mental health or increased stress, we believe that the parents view regarding their child’s behavior and their ability to reappraise the situation might be more important factors than the child’s autism diagnosis.

The study consisted of 37 parents of autistic children and 41 parents of neurotypical children. The parents were aged between 26 to 53, while the children were aged 3 to 13 years.


The findings of our study showed that parents of children with autism reported lower well-being and more stress than parents of neurotypical children. One of the causing factors was a higher negativity in autistic children than neurotypical children. At the same time, parents of autistic children perceived their children to be more difficult than parent of neurotypical children. Furthermore, parents of autistic children reported to use less reappraisal strategies than the other parents. Our results indicate indeed that the parents’ well-being and stress results out of a combination of environmental antecedents, personal antecedents, and mediating processes. We found that the autism diagnosis, in itself, did not account for a decline of parents’ well-being, but that the parents’ perception of the child’s difficulties, as well as their ability to reappraise situations did. Considering the parents’ stress, negative emotions and the parents’ perception of their children’s characteristics were good predictors. But contrary to the parents’ well-being, their ability of reappraisal did not influence their stress levels.


From our results we can conclude that the ability to reappraise difficult situations leads to an overall better well-being in parents. Regarding the stress levels of parents of autistic children, they likely develop due to the parents’ perception of their child’s negativity and liability, as well as their child’s autism diagnosis. Our results suggest, that the perception of the parents and their ability to reappraise given situations have a more important impact on their well-being and stress than the autism diagnosis alone. This supports our theory that stress is influenced by environmental antecedents (their child’s autism diagnosis), personal antecedents (attributions and belief system of the parent), and mediating processes (parents’ ability to reappraise challenging situations). With our study we hope to help identify the factors responsible for well-being and stress in parents of children with autism, as well as their interaction with each other and different effects on different parents. We can use this knowledge in future interventions and specifically address parents’ attributions and belief systems, as well as promoting the reappraisal of difficult situations. Strengthening the parents’ strategies could significantly help reduce stress and increase their well-being.


For more information about this study, please contact us at autisme@uni.lu.