How COVID-19-associated stress can influence your relationship with your children

How COVID-19-associated stress can influence your relationship with your children

March 2, 2021 Off By Lory Zephyr

On March 23, 2020, Quebec changed. The words “Covid-19,” “confinement” and “Arruda” entered our homes. Families will remember for a long time the exceptional nature of the pandemic. So many stressors have cumulated during this period. Whether it’s work-life balance at home, financial insecurity, or the fear of being infected with the virus, we have all reacted to this new reality. It is still too early to know if and how the parent-child attachment relationship has been affected by the current situation. However, a recent study looked at the associations among the burden of the pandemic, mental health and the parent-child relationship. 

Study information: Russell, B. S., Hutchison, M., Tambling, R. Tomkunas, A. J. Horton, A. L. (2020). Initial Challenges of Caregiving During COVID-19: Caregiver Burden, Mental Health, and the Parent-Child Relationship.Child psychiatry and human development, 51(5), 671-682.

What researchers are interested in:

The researchers of this study wanted to understand how the stress associated with COVID-19 could affect families. While the entire population has been exposed to some common stressors (fear of the virus, lack of access to reliable information resources, changes in routine work/school, routine changes for well-being, etc.), it seems that families were particularly affected 1. But why?

Families live in a system in which all members are interconnected. According to various theories, when a family member experiences negative emotions, they have the power to influence others. So if your partner is stressed, you may also feel that you are stressed. If your child is going through a more difficult time, it may lead you to compensate for this negative influence. And hop! We decorate, we go out and we invest in pleasant activities! At other times, stress may even be transferred from one family member to another. For example, if your spouse gives you his or her stress……Well, this may then affect the way you interact with your children. 

In a pandemic context, one can certainly ask how the stress experienced by each member of the family can be an additional burden to parents. Research has shown quite clearly that chronic stress experienced during natural disasters has effects on the mental health of individuals. For younger children, these effects would be especially important when their parents experience psychological difficulties related to the context. This is called the spillover effect: The parent’s stress spills over onto the child and then affects the child’s functioning!

On the other hand, a protective factor for children’s mental health is parental sensitivity, the parent’s ability to adequately perceive and respond to their child’s stress. However, high levels of stress often lead parents to be less sensitive to children’s needs, which may limit children resiliency. 

Is the stressful context of COVID-19 significant enough to affect the parent-child relationship?

What the study finds:

The weight of parental responsibilities, the presence of psychological difficulties in the father and mother (e.g., depression, anxiety, etc.) and their perception of the level of stress experienced by their child influences the quality of the parent-child relationship. The more these factors are present, the less proximity there is between the parent and the child, and the more parent-child conflicts there are. 

Interestingly, the fathers in the sample reported feeling more of the burden of parenting during the pandemic than mothers. As women are more often taking on the many roles of associated with caregiving, this may suggest that some fathers have significant difficulties adjusting to changes in parenting roles and responsibilities.

Finally, parents who experienced economic stress during the pandemic also felt more the weight of parental responsibilities. In addition, more stressed parents felt that their children were experiencing more stress. This would support the hypothesis that the stress experienced by the parent spills over onto the child. However, one question remains: to what extent parents perception of their and child’s stress and functioning are based on their own perceptions? Future research are needed to be examined this question.

Take home message for parents:

In light of this study, we understand that the mental health of the parent and the weight of parenting responsibilities that they may feel during stressful situations, such as during the pandemic, is important to consider. 

To help your family through the rest of the pandemic, the following can be helpful in experiencing stress on a daily basis:

  • Keep a routine for your children which is sensitive to their needs
  • Take care of your mental health as much as that of your children
  • Encourage emotional sharing and discussions about what the context of COVID brings to your family
  • Support your children in their difficulties and concerns as best as you can
  • Focus on effective but simple protective measures to help your child understand
  • Seek help from those around you, community organizations and institutions where possible. 
  1. Park, CL, Russell, BS, Fendrich, M, Finkelstein-Fox, L, Hutchison, M, Becker, J (2020). Americans’ Covid-19 stress, coping, and adherence to CDC guidelines. J Gen Int Med. https://doi. org/10.1007/s11606-020-05898-9