Increased personal distress reported by parents was related to increases in their child’s mental health problems during Covid-19. This distress refers to both general stress in addition to Covid-specific worry and distress. It also includes anxiety related to problems that existed before Covid-19.
For this reason it’s important parents look after their own mental health and stress levels. Seeking psychological help is a good option for parents who are struggling to cope.
Through a GP referral, Australians can receive ten sessions of psychological care per year through Medicare. Victorians who are currently subjected to further restrictions can now receive up to 20 sessions.
Good family relationships help
Higher levels of parental warmth and family cohesion were associated with fewer trauma symptoms in children. “Parental warmth” refers to being interested in what your child does, or encouraging them to talk to you about what they think; “family cohesion” relates to family members helping and supporting each other.
In other research these factors have consistently been found to relate to children’s adjustment to stress and trauma.
Fortunately, there is a range of resources parents can use to help improve relationships with their children.
Parents’ optimism can be contagious
While Covid-19 is having many negative impacts, some parents in our study also identified unexpected positive impacts, such as being able to spend more time with family. Children of these parents were less likely to experience an increase in some problems – particularly problems with peers such as being bullied.
Children observe parents’ behaviours and emotions for cues on how to manage their own emotions during difficult times. Trying to stay positive, or focus on the bright side as much as possible is likely to benefit children.
Some effects are greatest for vulnerable families
We found parents’ behaviour was particularly influential in lower socioeconomic backgrounds and single-parent families. In poorer families, parental warmth was particularly important in buffering children’s trauma symptoms. And in single-parent families, parental stress was more likely to predict behavioural problems in children.
This may be because poorer and single-parent families already face more stress, which can negatively impact children. Parental warmth can counteract the effects of these stresses, whereas high parental stress levels can increase them.
Research has already shown the pandemic will have greater negative impacts on those who have less resources available to them. This points to a need for extra psychological and financial support for these families. Governments and other organisations will need to take this into account when targeting their support packages.
It’s important to keep in mind child-parent relationships are a two-way street. Our research examined relationships at only one point in time, so we don’t know the extent to which our findings reflect a) parents causing changes in their children’s mental health, or b) changes in children’s mental health impacting parents, or the way a family functions. Research needs to follow children and their families over time to tease apart these possibilities.Given prevention is always better than cure, parents and families should seek help early to build the right foundations to safeguard the mental health of their children.
Associate Professor in Psychiatry, University of Melbourne
PhD Candidate, University of Melbourne