By Grace O'Connor, Child Policy Research Certificate student ’22
A new study co-authored by Ann Skinner looks at how the relation between COVID-related personal disruptions as reported by mothers and young adult children was associated with increased anxiety, depression and aggression experienced by both. Positive, healthy relationships between the two, though, moderated some of the effects of these disruptions.
More open communication from the young adults, supportive parenting, and less conflicts ending without positive resolution between mother and young adult protected mental health and aided the adjustment of both young adults and mothers.
“Family relationships built on trust, acceptance, openness, warmth, and positive conflict resolution –not avoiding conflict but resolving it in a positive way— can help families be more resilient during a public health crisis,” says Skinner, lead researcher of the study. “The family… help[ed] to shield young adults and mothers from some of the more worrisome aspects of functioning [during the pandemic].”
The study, recently published in a special issue of Developmental Psychology, surveyed participants as part of a larger, nine-country longitudinal study of parenting and child development. Data came from families in five of the nine countries: the U.S., Italy, Sweden, the Philippines, and Thailand. Mothers and youth completed evaluations shortly after March of 2020, when countries had varying COVID-19 death rates and responses to the disease. Although not a representative sample of each country, this diversity of families demonstrates how the results transcend U.S. and Western contexts and families, varying death rates from the pandemic, and different national responses to the pandemic.
Unlike many parenting studies, which look at the parent-child relationship when the child is young, this study highlighted the relationship between young adults and their parent. Pre-pandemic relationship evaluations occurred when children were 17 years old, and youth were 20 years old at evaluations during the pandemic. The results of this study, claims Skinner, emphasize the need to continue to research development and the parent-child relationship late into adolescence due to continued impact on both parent and child.
Results from the study inform best practices for clinical practice and for prevention against negative mental health outcomes from crises. Building and maintaining strong, healthy relationships within families are key to supporting individuals with personal disruptions in their life.
Mental health treatment ought to “take more of a ‘family systems’ approach rather than the individual deficit model [often used today,]” says Skinner. The relationships within a family can also act as a protectant against negative mental health impacts due to crises in one’s life.
Inevitably, disasters and pandemics will continue to occur across the world. Families need “proactive and preventative” interventions and supportive parenting to build familial resilience for those crises.