Study investigates possible associations between parents’ stress and children’s COVID-19 fears
By Randolph Fillmore
“The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the lives of parents and their children worldwide,” says Dianna Kalpakian, Ph.D., a pediatric psychologist in the Center for Behavioral Health at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital. “The constant media attention paid to the pandemic, closing businesses and schools, physical distancing, and mask-wearing to shut down the spread of the virus have caused stress, anxiety and fear in parents and their children.”
In addition, Kalpakian notes that restrictions related to the pandemic affected children’s daily routines by reducing their physical activity; increased their “screen time”; altered their regular sleeping hours; affected their psychosocial outcome; and may have fostered anxiety and depression over their fears of contracting COVID-19.
Parents have experienced major disruptions as well — they may have had increased childcare responsibilities, experienced financial difficulties, social isolation, and lost work or had work schedules altered.
At the start of the pandemic, how stress, anxiety and fear have been generated in families during the COVID-19 pandemic had not been studied in great detail, says Kalpakian, but early research had suggested that children — observing how their parents reacted to various aspects of the pandemic — may have reacted in a similar manner.
“We wanted to find out if there were links between parenting stress and children’s COVID-19 fear,” explains Kalpakian. “Some children have experienced greater fears in response to COVID-19 and we hypothesized that there might be a link between parents’ stress, their lowered emotional wellbeing, and how they communicated COVID-19-related information to their children.”
Looking for answers, Kalpakian joined Melissa Faith, Ph.D., and colleagues and conducted a study in May 2020, early in the pandemic. The results of their research were recently published in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics in a paper titled “Relationships Among Parenting Stress and Well-Being: COVID- 19 Information Management and Children’s COVID-19 Fear.”
The Study: Participant Demographics
Kalpakian and her collaborators from Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, the University of Texas Rio Grande, and Wichita State University used a number of models and behavioral measures to assess parenting stress and parental management of their child’s COVID-19 knowledge, via a survey study.
They recruited 595 people who were caregivers of children between the ages of 7 and 17 during the early stages of the pandemic, and asked each participant to respond to the survey in regard to their child who had had the most recent birthday.
Of the caregivers participating in the study, 56 percent were mothers of the participating children and 38.3 percent were their fathers. Grandparents and “others” constituted the remainder of the participating caregivers. 72.9 percent of the participating caregivers were married.
In terms of education, 59.4 percent of them had either a bachelor’s degree (40.2 percent) or a master’s degree (19.2 percent).
The children averaged 11.4 years of age. 54.1 percent were male and 45.5 percent female. Most of the children in the study were in elementary school and many (53.6 percent) were receiving only online education during the pandemic, while 26.9 percent were receiving both online and in-person schooling, and 11.9 percent had only workbooks for schooling.
Research Models and Measures
The researchers employed both the Fear of Illness and Virus Evaluation (FIVE) tool, which is a parent-report measure of a child’s virus-related fears, and The Epidemic/Pandemic Impacts Inventory, a 92-item measure of how the pandemic affects parents’ lives.
They also employed the Parent’s Coping Strategies for Children, which assesses the degree to which parents use expert-recommended coping strategies to help their child cope with pandemic-related fears, as well as the Parental Stress Scale (PSS), an 18-item questionnaire to assess the degree of stress associated with a variety of aspects of raising children.
Parents were also asked about their own physical and emotional well-being, and specifically about anxiety, stress and sleep problems.
The researchers found that increased parental stress was associated with decreased parental emotional wellbeing and that stress affected how parents managed a child’s knowledge of COVID-19, potentially leading to the child’s heightened COVID-19 fears.
“Once parents’ stress is reduced and wellbeing is increased, parents may be more likely to provide their child with developmentally appropriate and accurate COVID-19 information,” explains Kalpakian. “In other words, when parents are more relaxed and feel more supported during the pandemic, they are more likely to have better emotional wellbeing, which could give them more energy and/or a more optimistic perspective to provide explanations regarding the pandemic.”
Parental Stress and Child COVID-19 Fear
“Our findings may be explained by the Pediatric Medical Traumatic Stress Model,” concludes Kalpakian. “That model suggests that as parental post-traumatic stress symptoms increase, the risk of the children developing post-traumatic stress increases.”
Although Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was first identified as occurring with traumatic wartime experiences, Kalpakian notes that PTSD symptoms can occur for anyone who’s experienced trauma, and that the pandemic (e.g., being hospitalized related to COVID-19 or witnessing a family member being hospitalized, etc.) may be no exception. PTSD symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the traumatic events.
“Our results demonstrate the importance of having pediatric health care providers routinely assess how parents and children are coping with the COVID-19 pandemic,” concludes Kalpakian.
Implications for Future Research and Practice
“Future studies should evaluate the extent to which parents’ COVID-19 communication and their emotional wellbeing change over time,” suggests Kalpakian. “Future studies should also use methods to observe parent-child interactions, further evaluate parent-child communication and discover first-hand other associations between parent COVID-19 communication and child COVID-19 fear.”
Kalpakian speculates that interventions targeting parental stress, parental wellbeing, and parental COVID-19 information management could diminish child fears. She also suggests their study model could be used to assess parental stress and child fear and anxiety related to other stressful experiences, beyond COVID-19.