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Can Parenting Blunt the Pandemic’s Blow to Kids?

Global Study Looks at How COVID-19 Alters Family Relations

By Chris Samoray

Photo of parent on couch with children in a blur

Photo by Shutterstock

A global research project led by UMD education researchers is delving into how stresses brought on the by the coronavirus pandemic are changing parent-child relationships, as well as whether some communities or cultures deal more effectively with challenges.

Being a parent is hard in normal times—and being a kid is hardly a cinch. Add in a raging pandemic, and homebound bliss can be tough to find.

University of Maryland College of Education researchers are working to understand how stress related to COVID-19 affects the child-parent relationship and mental health, with early findings suggesting that pre-pandemic factors may predict child behavior difficulties during the pandemic—but that parental nurturing can help to overcome some of them. 

Led by Professor Kenneth Rubin of the Department of Human Development and Quantitative Methodology, the Families and Children's Experiences (FACE) of COVID-19 study has grown from a Maryland-focused project into a worldwide research collaboration. It includes study sites in Canada, Chile, China, India, Italy, Portugal, Turkey and other countries, with researchers in each location exploring how COVID-19 affects family functioning and lifestyle changes over time to determine factors that most help parents and children manage during the pandemic. 

They particularly want to know how outcomes vary from culture to culture, based on cultural values that can influence how parents and children behave and interact. 

“Learning about the effects of COVID-19 between countries and cultures may lead to a better understanding of why some communities or cultures do better or worse under pandemic stress,” said Rubin, who has studied children’s social and emotional development, parenting, and child and parent mental health for more than 30 years and directs the Laboratory for the Study of Child and Family Relationships.

The research team is recruiting 100 to 150 families with children ages 3.5 to 7 for each site around the world. Participants respond to monthly questionnaires for a six-month period to assess measures such as parental well-being and behavior and children’s emotional and behavioral regulation. The findings will evaluate how and whether pandemic-related stress changes household relationships and whether any factors are especially protective, such as parenting styles or access to medical and social support systems. 

The Maryland portion of study began soon after start of the pandemic. Preliminary findings from this phase suggest that child irritability prior to COVID-19 predicts conduct problems during COVID-19, but also that irritable children who have nurturing parents do not develop these behavior problems. Interestingly, during COVID-19, irritable children become less prosocial—which includes behaviors related to sharing, caring and helping—if their parents are less nurturant; however, pre-COVID-19 irritability does not predict declines in prosocial behavior if parents are responsive and sensitive. 

But parents need the necessary support and resources, including financial, to cope with pandemic-related stress and promote a healthy home environment, the study suggests.

Across study sites worldwide, the researchers expect to find considerable variability in whether families become stronger or more at odds after the pandemic. But Rubin said he’d make similar recommendations to parents now as he would if COVID-19 didn’t exist.

“Being sensitive, supportive and kind no matter how you feel inside as a parent, is so incredibly important,” Rubin says. “I think parents have to take it upon themselves, regardless of age of the child, to have patience and be responsive and sensitive to the needs of their kids.”

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