Have maternal pre-pandemic stress levels influenced children’s mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic?

The ongoing coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has had a tremendous impact on many spheres of life across the globe,  from physical and mental health to social and economic wellbeing. Preventive strategies aimed at curbing viral transmission levels, such as isolation and social distancing, have posed several challenges to affected families.

Quarantine restrictions have a proven influence on the social and emotional development of children and adolescents. Everyday restrictions such as school closures, quarantine, and the cancellation of outdoor activities have negatively affected many families. Moreover, external support from family members or social institutions has been limited, which has exacerbated the circumstances of many already stressed families.

A stable and secure family environment with mentally healthy parents is a strong protective factor for children. Ongoing research focusing on pandemic-related effects on children 3 and 6 years of age shows that compared to older children, younger ones are significantly more likely to experience symptoms of stress in their social and emotional development.

Role of maternal daily perceived stress on the mental health of children during the pandemic

A recent study, published in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health,  assessed the role of maternal daily perceived stress on the mental health of children during the pandemic. They conducted an online survey to assess children’s mental health since the beginning of the pandemic. Data from a longitudinal survey was used to assess maternal perceived everyday stress. The survey included elements of the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire, the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire, and the Perceived Stress Scale. They also collected socio-demographic data of the families and applied Tobit models for estimation due to limited dependent variables.

They found that maternal perceived everyday stress had a significant impact on children’s emotional issues during the pandemic. The results provided empirical evidence for increased hyperactivity levels in children dependent on the mother’s perceived stress before the pandemic started. There was no significant relationship between the mother’s perceived everyday stress and behavioral problems of children.

Lack of pre-pandemic protective factors and its influence on mental health during the pandemic

Existing studies on mental stress in parents and children mainly focus on the link between the pandemic and stress levels of parents and children. In contrast, this study considered longitudinally recorded maternal daily perceived stress. Maternal perceived stress was measured across the first years of their children’s life (starting from birth) and was not limited to stress caused by the pandemic.

There is a lack of literature estimating the influence of a combined measure of both the effects of pre-pandemic stressors and pandemic-related distress on health outcomes,” writes the team.

According to the authors, this is the first study to estimate the relationship between longitudinally assessed maternal mental stress before the pandemic and the mental health of children during the pandemic.

The findings illustrate that children of mothers who had a higher pre-pandemic stress level show significantly more mental distress during the COVID-19 pandemic. The increase in behavioral problems of children during the pandemic shows that the level of maternal perceived stress starting at their child’s birth influences these issues.

Parental stress is a risk factor for poor coping with pandemic-related stress by children

Regardless of the current pandemic-related crisis, maternal stress directly influences a child’s stress and behavioral attributes. Hence, it is crucial that the current parental stress is considered a risk factor for poor coping with pandemic-related stress by children. The results are consistent with the findings of other studies that detected a positive relationship between psychological stress experienced by parents and their children. However, since this study is based on longitudinal data capturing maternal stress from childbirth onwards, the researchers were able to map the development of maternal stress over time.

To summarize, the findings show that maternal psychological stress exposure, regardless of origin, has a significant influence on the experience of stress by the child during the pandemic, which highlights the importance of a stable foundation for children. More research is needed to identify the various economic and social factors influencing these negative impacts to prevent mental health problems in children.

These findings highlight the importance for future research to identify risk and protective factors to prevent adverse mental health outcomes for children in an exceptionally stressful situation like the current pandemic,” concluded the authors.

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