Published: 15-03-2013 00:00 | Updated: 30-10-2014 13:02

Past traumatic life events increase parents' risk for post-traumatic stress following a child's cancer diagnosis

Earlier traumatic life events, experienced prior to the child's cancer, increase parents' psychological vulnerability associated with the information about the diagnosis. According to a study from Karolinska Institutet, published in PLOS One, the risk of developing more serious symptoms of posttraumatic stress (PTS) at the early stage following child's cancer is increased by such events, and this risk is particularly apparent regarding mothers.

The study aims to identify causal factors that in addition to the child's illness contribute to serious traumatic stress symptoms in parents. The researchers note that study findings indicate the need to adapt psychosocial cancer care so that it considers parents' individual vulnerability and previous life history, as these factors have a bearing on how parents manage to cope with the crisis caused by the child's illness.

– These findings show that care and follow-up of parents of children diagnosed with cancer should be individually adapted. Psychological support to the family would gain in effectiveness with attention paid to parents' life time history of prior traumatic experiences, and the study demonstrates how it can be done, says Krister Boman, one of the researchers.

The study is part of a larger research project on the psychosocial consequences following a child's cancer diagnosis, the identification of stress-related psychosocial risk factors, and support needs of the families. The study included 169 parents (97 mothers, 72 fathers) of 103 children diagnosed with cancer. The children were aged between one month and 20 years (median age, 5.9 years). Among parents, 20.7 percent had an immigrant background. Post-traumatic stress symptoms were measured using standardized self-assessment methods. The experience of past traumatic life events predicted more severe symptoms in a central dimension of PTS measured in the study. In addition, it was found that compared with fathers, mothers consistently showed higher symptom levels in all measured dimensions of PTS. An earlier assumption that older parents, and parents with immigrant backgrounds, would be more vulnerable to cancer-related stress was not supported by the findings.

The study was conducted with financial support from the Swedish Childhood Cancer Foundation and Karolinska Institutet institutional research grants.


Impact of prior traumatic life events on parental early stage reactions following a child's cancer.
Boman K, Kjällander Y, Eksborg S, Becker J
PLoS ONE 2013 ;8(3):e57556