Around this time last year, an inexorable force swept into people’s lives. It upended everything — relationships, friendships, routines, work life, independence, and sense of control. In this respect, the COVID-19 pandemic has similarities to another dramatic event — becoming a parent. And just like the pandemic, nothing quite prepares you for it. For all those who became parents in the last year, these two realties have collided. New parents have been left without many of the usual support networks that help support them through the early days. Those networks include their own parents, parent-baby groups, informal social networks, and in-person postnatal and breastfeeding support groups. Added to all this is the constant threat from a life-threatening virus. “We hope it is a comfort to know that there is something simple and easy to do together, safely and in the comfort of home, that lays positive foundations for the developing brain.” It is too soon to say what effect these extraordinary circumstances will have on babies born during the pandemic, but the effect on parents is already being felt. Numerous studies show that parents have found lockdowns extremely hard emotionally, and that the strain they are under has affected their ability to parent, which has consequences for children. The lockdowns have been linked to an increase in parental anxiety, depression, and hostility. And the pandemic has put women at increased risk of anxiety and depression in the perinatal period. At the same time, increased parental support has been shown to help decrease stress associated with the pandemic. The brunt of this burden has fallen on certain groups, including single parents and low-income families. Because of this, it is vital that new parents receive additional support at this difficult time, especially in terms of their mental health. There are some very simple, intuitive ways parents can work on laying the foundations for their children’s development from the very early days. One of the simplest of these is to pick up a book and read together. Plenty of evidence shows how important it is to read with children, not least for their cognitive development and vocabulary. In one study, both the quality of the books and the amount of reading time starting at six months were important predictors of literacy and vocabulary four years later. New parents might be surprised to learn that a shared activity like reading promotes a kind of back-and-forth interaction between child and caregiver that can trigger a chain reaction of long-lasting beneficial effects, and that these interactions might also help reduce the stress parents are feeling. Adults who interact sensitively with a child — for instance, reading or singing, looking at the same things, and copying sounds and faces — help children feel safe and secure. In turn, these feelings can help children cope better in challenging situations later on — something we know is important during the pandemic. These interactions also encourage children to explore more, which helps them develop problem-solving skills. All this builds to the kind of learning and development that prepares children for big steps in life, like starting school. This cascade of development is supported by the science of early learning, which shows that parents and caregivers lay the foundation for secure caregiver-child attachment relationships, which help children develop the ability to focus and pay attention, remember instructions, and demonstrate self-control (also called executive function). Positive caregiver-child interactions also help children develop social-emotional skills, such as cooperating and playing well with others, and managing feelings appropriately. Together, secure relationships and strong social-emotional and executive function skills in children are related to resilience and school readiness. “New parents might be surprised to learn that a shared activity like reading or singing together promotes a kind of back-and-forth interaction between child and caregiver that can trigger a chain reaction of long-lasting beneficial effects.” The children are not the only ones who benefit. Positive and engaging interactions between children and the adults in their lives are also good for the adults, helping them become more confident caregivers. Reading to children may also help with parental stress and even depression. It can feel strange to read books to very young babies. Even without a pandemic, the early days of parenthood can be overwhelming and it can be hard for parents to know what they should be doing, especially given the deluge of parenting advice. Parents also underestimate just how early the care they provide has long-term impacts on their children’s development. For instance, in one survey, parents said they believed what they did started to make a difference at six months, but we know that the impact starts from birth. At a time when uncertainty abounds, especially for new parents, we hope it is a comfort to know that there is something simple and easy to do together, safely and in the comfort of home. And that the simple back and forth that reading and rhyming creates can extend beyond the pages of the book and lay positive foundations for the developing brain that last for many years. More
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New research from Romania has demonstrated a clear correlation between adverse childhood experiences in fathers’ lives and their children’s development, including sleep disruption, inattention, anger, and anxiety. Fathers’ symptoms of depression partially accounted for the correlation between their early experiences and their children’s inattention and anger. Fathers’ negative parenting practices partially accounted for the link with children’s inattention.
Adverse childhood experiences include growing up in poverty; absence or death of a parent; violence; caregivers’ drug or alcohol addiction; physical or emotional neglect; peer victimization; or physical, psychological, and sexual abuse.
Based on the study, the researchers concluded that fathers should be involved in programs that support children with problems such as anxiety, anger, inattention, and sleep disturbance. Other studies have shown that parents with a reported history of prior maltreatment have the capacity for improving their parenting practices. Fathers should also receive direct support to address depression and negative parenting practices.
The study featured 118 fathers of 6- to 17-year-olds. All fathers were in stable, committed relationships with the mother of their children. Fathers completed a series of psychological questionnaires and evaluations of their own children. They were asked about their own childhood experiences, their assessment of their children’s mental health (inattention, sleep disturbance, depression, anger, anxiety), their own parenting practices, and their relationship with their children’s mother.
The correlations in this research do not imply causation, but they do correspond with earlier research, particularly on mothers. Mothers’ depression and negative parenting has been shown to explain the link between their own adverse childhood experiences and their children’s development – including communication, problem solving, motor skills at age 2, health, and hyperactivity. Many studies have confirmed that individuals who were maltreated in childhood are at risk of repeating these negative behaviors toward their own children.
Fathers’ symptoms of depression have also been linked to their children’s anxiety, depression, substance addiction (for up to 20 years), psychiatric disorders, lower academic performance, hyperactivity, social problems, and emotional difficulties. The global socioeconomic changes that have been occurring for the last 40 years suggest that the traditional mother-focused models of developmental influence are old fashioned. The presence and involvement of fathers in their children’s lives is strongly associated with their offspring’s social well-being, academic achievement, and behavioral adjustment. Moreover, longitudinal studies have confirmed that, in child development, fathers matter in ways similar to mothers. More
The mental health of stressed young people was transformed at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic: Many felt better. Anxiety and symptoms of depression dropped among older, high-achieving children in the United States. That was particularly true for students about to graduate from high school, our research in U.S. schools has found.
Why? Children relaxed … for a bit. COVID-19 provided a full stop to the busyness of some teenage lives. The treadmill of pressure, activities, and commitments halted. Out went crisscrossing among band practice, sports clubs, social activities, and hours of homework into the small hours. Lockdowns brought that high-octane life to a sudden standstill.
Children got more sleep – they weren’t leaving home at 7 am. Many schools had staggered hours and reduced the pressure, shifting from grading assignments to awarding a pass or fail. Social anxiety was reduced – a teenager didn’t need to worry about being left out of the lunch table or not being invited to parties that no longer happened. Missing out on a romantic relationship didn’t matter as much – kids were not seeing seemingly happy couples at school or at social gatherings.
But this break didn’t last. As we worked with schools through the arrival of summer, we found that anxiety and depression had risen again among older high school students. Their initial relief morphed into feeling that life was unsettling, scary, and lonely — young people experienced grief about incomplete endings and fears about what might lie ahead.
“Anxiety and depression dropped initially for older, high-achieving children in the United States.”
Middle school children less relieved
Children in middle school did not have even the initial relief – in our survey, anxiety and depression stayed at previous levels for them. That’s probably because virtual communication is more challenging for children of this age. Their peer groups are less well formed and less stable than those of 16- to 18-year-olds. If you are an awkward, insecure 12-year-old with few social connections, it can be easier to casually share confidences with friends at soccer practice or while walking around than to do so from home via Zoom. Self-consciousness kicks in: “Will they like my room?” “Will they see my family?”
We’ve learned a lot about what helps children of all ages feel good in a period characterized by prolonged uncertainty, with no end in sight. Two predictors of their well-being stand out: the well-being of parents and the supportiveness of teachers.
Photo: kris krüg. Creative Commons.
Parents and teachers vital for resilience
First, we found strong, unique links between adolescents’ depression and anxiety and whether they felt their parents were coping well. When children felt their parents maintained a calm, stable home and were in good enough shape to provide emotional support, they were likely to be doing well. This was true across ages, genders, and races. Our finding is in sync with a major report published last year on children’s well-being by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Its take-home message: If you want children to do well, the single most important step is to ensure that the parents are doing well themselves.
“When children felt their parents maintained a calm, stable home and were in good enough shape to provide emotional support, they were likely to be doing well.”
Second, our research found that the support of key adults – and teachers in particular – was vital to children in maintaining their well-being. In open-ended questions on what was going well in their schools, children and youth responded most often with answers such as, “My teacher cares about me and reaches out to me,” and ‘I really like that my teachers check in on how I’m feeling and not just my school work.”
Parents need proper care
These two observations should inform practice and policy. The first highlights that we need to expand the focus of policy and practice beyond just styles of parenting. Children’s well-being depends not simply on quality of care but is linked directly to parents’ own well-being. During the pandemic, adults – just like children – also require love, gentleness, comfort, and stability. This helps the adults ensure that their children feel well looked after.
“Burned out” teachers need help, too
Teachers’ welfare is also important, not just for its own sake, but also because these adults provide valuable care and support for students. During the pandemic, we surveyed U.S. teachers’ well-being. Stress rates stayed steady, but clinically significant burnout has risen sharply among educators since March 2020. The risk factors seem to be lack of clarity about what they are required to do and blurry boundaries between work and recreation. These findings reflect how many teachers have worked long hours and had few breaks over the summer. Their needs should also be supported, especially if they are to play their role in bolstering children’s resilience.
Which aspects of home life were most helpful?
Our research about children during the COVID-19 pandemic identified three factors, , that reliably predicted anxiety and depression in children. By far the most important was having a low-quality relationship with parents. Following this was lack of structure to the day (separating time for leisure or fun), and high levels of distraction or inability to focus on schoolwork.
Parents and schools can help address each of these factors. For parents, the challenge in these very difficult circumstances is to stay well themselves. Stress levels have risen for all and it is important that parents share their burdens with others and, where necessary – and if they can – seek professional help.
Manage technology, expectations, and assignments
For schools, an important task is to support their teachers well. Professional development programs must address directly the psychological burdens educators take on as they support their students through the pandemic. For students, schools should ensure that their days are well-structured and that lessons are not too long. Online technology should be streamlined so children are not juggling between different platforms. Educators should scale back expectations and focus on the core skills children need, letting go of much of the rest. Teachers should coordinate with other teachers when making assignments and scheduling due dates. It doesn’t take much figuring out to ensure, for example, that Monday is science homework day, Tuesday is math homework day, and so on. This helps children have a predictable and manageable week.
None of us should forget, if life begins to return to how it once was, that there was something wrong with the overly busy schedules of many children’s lives. The figures for serious anxiety and depression tell the story. COVID-19 has brought its own problems, but the temporary sense of relaxation it has offered some children shows that life was not that healthy beforehand. Children deserve better than the old normal.
Header photo: Unsplash. More
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