By Sophie Hurewitz, Child Policy Research Certificate student ‘22
Newly published research examining adolescent stress during the COVID-19 pandemic suggests parents can play a key role in helping their children develop resilience in the face of community-wide threats or public health crises.
The focus of the study, led by Ann Skinner of Duke University’s Center for Child and Family Policy, was to investigate how the pandemic affected young adults’ mental health symptoms, as well as possible factors for mitigating pandemic-related anxiety and depression in those young adults.
Researchers analyzed data collected from adolescents and their parents between 2016 and 2020 in nine countries to assess associations among pandemic disruption and perceived increases in anxiety and depression in young adults and whether positivity, future-oriented thoughts, or parents’ psychological control during adolescence impact those relations.
“The goal,” Skinner says, “is to try to explore family relationships in different countries and cultures to find out what will help families cope and overcome hardship.”
Consistently across all nine countries, the data revealed a link between the pandemic disruption and increased levels of anxiety and depression among young adults (~ 20 years old). This finding supports prior research during the pandemic showing the young adult population is especially vulnerable. Researchers also found that the strength of this relationship between the pandemic disruption and perceived increases in feelings of anxiety and depression depended on three factors that were reported by the same subjects three years earlier during their adolescence (~17 years old).
For adolescents who had higher levels of future orientation (e.g., planning ahead vs. “jumping right in”; anticipation of future consequences) and higher levels of positivity (e.g., “I am satisfied with my life”; “I feel I have many things to be proud of”), the relation between disruption and feelings of anxiety and depression were not as strong. “This means their future oriented thinking and positivity during adolescence had a protective effect during the pandemic,” explains Skinner.
A more surprising finding was the role parents played in mitigating these negative impacts on young adults’ mental health symptoms. Additional analyses revealed that parents’ psychological control, which Skinner describes as “parents using techniques that limit children’s autonomy” during adolescence may serve as a protective factor against pandemic-related increases in anxiety and depression.
“It does seem like those things are counter-intuitive,” she states. “How can an adolescent whose parents have high levels of psychological control… also have taken steps to plan and think about their future and have goals for it?” Skinner admits they don’t have the answers yet, however she points to a Dutch study as one possible explanation. In the study of Dutch adolescents and their parents, the authors found that although youth reported an increase in rules set by parents during the pandemic and a temporary decrease in autonomy, most youth reported they felt these additional restrictions were legitimate and warranted. Skinner posits that parentally imposed pandemic restrictions may have provided a sense of emotional and physical security that young adults appreciated.
“We know that in addition to early childhood, adolescence is another period of rapid brain development. It is not surprising to find evidence that parents’ behavior during adolescence can be associated with outcomes in young adulthood, particularly regarding something as serious as the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Skinner. These results may inform parenting practices, prevention strategies against negative mental health outcomes from crises, and techniques to maintain healthy familial relationships.
“The findings suggest the importance of supportive family relationships not just during times of crisis but at all times, as these supportive relationships built over time can buffer the effects of stressful, disruptive experiences,” says Jennifer Lansford, also of the Center for Child and Family Policy and co-author of the study.
Researchers were surprised that these findings were consistent in all nine countries, regardless of the country’s infection rates, government response, and personal experiences of adolescents and parents. Skinner suggests that readers consider these findings in tandem with other papers addressing confidence in government, substance use, and parent-child relationship quality in the context of the pandemic.
This study appears in Social Sciences’ Special Issue: Parenting in the 21st Century.
Building on this latest research, Skinner and team, which currently includes Center affiliate Kenneth Dodge and Child Policy Research Certificate student Sierra Jones ’22, will continue to collect data from families every three months throughout 2022 and will continue to track perceptions of pandemic disruption and adjustment over time.