Maureen Davey, PhD: Who Helps the Young When Their Caregivers Can’t?

“Play therapy gives young children an opportunity to solve problems, release tension, and heal their emotional issues”.

Humans’ exceptionally long childhood affords time to develop under the care and tutelage of adults. But illness in a caregiver skews this paradigm, imposing burdens that the young are ill equipped to shoulder, especially when support is lacking.

Dr. Maureen Davey studies the effects of mental or physical disorders such as depression or cancer on the family. “I’m particularly interested in the way children and adolescents manage the conflicting demands of growing up with caregivers whose health is compromised,” she explains. “Children need to experience the world without undue responsibility and worry. Play is crucial to normal development.”2 children with therapistDr. Davey most recently studied adolescents at risk for depression and anxiety due to coping with a mother or other caregiver diagnosed with breast cancer. “Coping and resilient adaptation by young people, especially those in underserved populations lacking adequate support resources, have been neglected in clinical research.” Several pilot studies and a focus group have illuminated optimal ways to clinically intervene on their behalf.

Through her research, Dr. Davey intends to help both parents and children by developing evidence-based interventions.

Dr. Davey’s young respondents described factors that complicate their lives after a caregiver’s breast cancer diagnosis and treatment. The “normal” struggle for independence and the formation of a separate identity is exacerbated by conflict between the desire to break away from the family and the knowledge that their emotional and physical support is needed.

Although studies have documented that adolescents are at high risk for developing psychological symptoms when a mother is diagnosed and treated for breast cancer, no clinical interventions have been developed for them.

Collaborating with oncologists at several Atlanta hospitals, Dr. Davey began testing a family-focused preventive intervention with families from various ethnic backgrounds. “The long-term goal is to develop empirically supported, culturally sensitive interventions to help parents and adolescents cope with physical illness,” notes the researcher. “Drexel’s relationships with Delaware Valley hospitals will help me establish collaborative inquiries.”

Dr. Davey’s own local connections amplify the opportunities. “I was the children’s outpatient director and supervisor of an in-home family therapy program in Philadelphia,” she continues. “That gave me experience in applying a home-based, family centered model to enhance adaptive outcomes in families who are at risk when parental emotional and financial resources fall short.”

Families are referred to this program when a child or adolescent is diagnosed with moderate to severe emotional problems such as depression or anxiety and is at risk of out of home placement, either medical or residential. Through her research, Dr. Davey intends to help both parents and children in this and similar programs by developing evidence-based interventions.