COVID-19 caused cascading stress for families: Study
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COVID-19 caused a cascading effect of economic stress in many families

by Freya Lucas

May 31, 2024

Economic insecurity as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic caused a cascading effect of connected problems for some families, researchers from Ohio State University have found, making links to higher levels of depressive symptoms for parents, which was then associated with poorer relationship quality for the couples, and poorer mental health outcomes for their children.


“Pandemic-induced economic hardship had this downstream spillover effect that was ultimately linked negatively with their children’s mental health,” lead author Associate Professor Joyce Lee said. 


“Our findings parallel with other descriptive research showing that children’s mental health plummeted during the pandemic.”


Published online recently in the journal Child & Family Social Work, the findings note that stress between couples, and poorer relationships led to harsher parenting, which then led to an increase of internalising behaviours for children. 


The study involved 259 parents raising one or more children ages 12 years or younger who said they experienced at least one pandemic-related economic hardship. The longitudinal survey, which included participants from across the United States, focused on two different points during the early weeks of the pandemic.


One of the strengths of this research is that it didn’t just include middle-income families – in 31 per cent of the families studied, the parents’ income was below $30,000.


Parents were asked about their depressive symptoms, relationship quality and harsh parenting practices. They were also asked about their children’s internalizing behaviours such as complaining of loneliness, crying a lot, and being fearful or anxious.


The researchers found a clear connection between these issues, AP Lee said.


Economic insecurity the catalyst


Those parents who reported higher levels of economic insecurity at the time of the first survey also had higher levels of depressive symptoms at the same time, which was in turn linked to a more negative relationship with their partner at the time of the second survey.


“They were reporting more disagreements and arguments and fights among themselves during the pandemic,” AP Lee said.


That, in turn, was linked to reports of using more harsh parenting with their children.  This included yelling, screaming and shouting at their child; and physical punishment such as spanking.


Finally, harsh parenting was linked to children who had internalising behaviours such as frequent crying and loneliness. (Data from the study did not include externalizing behaviors, such as physical aggression and tantrums.)


“There are these cascading effects that begin with pandemic-initiated economic difficulties that all trickle down to children’s mental health,” AP Lee said.


While other studies have found that depressive symptoms in parents can be related to harsh parenting, one strength of this study is that it also included partner relationship quality, she said.


“Relationship quality is an important part of this.  If you’re not doing well with your partner, that speaks to a wider family dynamic that can spill over to how you deal with your children,” AP Lee explained.


Not gender defined 


Findings also showed that there was not a significant gender difference in how mothers and fathers reacted when faced with economic problems during the pandemic. That was somewhat of a surprise to researchers since some reports said mothers took a larger hit to their careers because of COVID-19 and were more likely to take care of children at home when schools closed. That suggested mothers might do worse than fathers, but it wasn’t found in this study.


AP Lee noted that this was a relatively small sample, so more research is needed to confirm gender differences in reactions to the pandemic.


While this study was done during the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, she said that the findings could be relevant to other disasters or issues that lead to economic downturns.


One implication is the need for interventions that could help mothers and fathers who are struggling economically to stop the cascade of problems leading to child mental health issues, however “it goes beyond that.”


“We need a better social safety net to catch these parents early on before the economic pressures lead to these negative consequences,” AP Lee said.


Co-authors on the study were Sehun Oh, Amy Xu and Angelise Radney of Ohio State; Shawna J. Lee of the University of Michigan; and Christina M. Rodriguez of Old Dominion University.


Access the study here

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