Published on Psychology Today
The uncertainty that has come with battling the coronavirus pandemic has been incredibly stressful for most people, especially those with children. Thousands have lost their jobs, or are managing businesses that are in financial trouble. Those of us that have been lucky enough to have an income find ourselves trying to work full time from home while caring for young children, or possibly worse, trying to work full time while simultaneously home-schooling older children. Juggling so many responsibilities while dealing with an uncertain future can take a toll on our mental health. And on top of that, it’s easy to deprioritize our own needs while trying to keep up with those of our family members and colleagues. But there’s a good reason not to let your own mental health fall by the wayside; namely, that your mental health can potentially have a long-lasting impact not just on your general well-being, but on your child’s as well.
There is a large and growing literature suggesting that depression and anxiety in parents can have negative effects on the child. Statistically, children of parents with anxiety and depression are at increased risk of developing these problems themselves (Woodruff-Borden, Morrow, Bourland, & Cambron, 2002). This happens for several reasons. One is biological—either by genetic risk, or the result of a process put into motion before babies are even born. Indeed, mothers who are anxious while pregnant are more likely to have infants who later develop emotional problems (O'Connor, Heron, Golding, Beveridge, & Glover, 2002; Van den Bergh & Marcoen, 2004). How is this possible? There is evidence that stress, or changes in a pregnant mother’s mood might change the physiology of the prenatal environment, potentially affecting the biology of the developing fetus (Beijers, Buitelaar, & de Weerth, 2014; Kaplan, Evans, & Monk, 2008).
Besides the impact of biology, there is research showing that behaviorally, anxious parents are less engaged, and more withdrawn during interactions with their children when compared to non-anxious parents (Woodruff-Borden, Morrow, Bourland, & Cambron, 2002). These behaviors could have a negative impact on the child as well. There is a long history of research showing that unengaged parents have children who do more poorly in school, have higher depressive symptoms, and engage in more risky behaviors like smoking and drinking than parents with more engaged parenting styles (e.g., Radziszewska, Richardson, Dent, & Flay, 1996). In fact, just being distracted momentarily can have an impact on children’s behavior. For example, research has shown that when mothers are interrupted by looking at their cell phone when playing with their children, children play less, and spend most of their time trying to get their mothers’ attention back. Further, when moms do put down the phone and turn their attention back to their children, the children don’t fully recover: they explore the room and play with toys less than before their moms were interrupted (Myruski, Gulyayeva, Birk, Pérez‐Edgar, Buss, & Dennis‐Tiwary, 2017). Thus, being less responsive to children—a characteristic associated with parental anxiety—can have a negative impact on children in a number of ways.
There is also evidence that children can learn to respond to their environments based on observing the emotional responses of their parents. For example, in my own research, my colleagues and I found that babies of anxious moms have difficulty looking away from negative facial expressions, directing more of their attention to negative information in the environment (Morales et al., 2017). Similarly, there is evidence that babies of depressed mothers see positive and negative faces differently than babies of non-depressed mothers, showing less of a novelty response to negative facial expressions (Cohn, Matias, Tronick, Connell, & Lyons-Ruth, 1986; Field, 1992). Whether parents realize it or not, children can learn to be anxious or afraid of specific things—like a spider for instance—simply by watching their parent’s emotional reaction to it, or by hearing negative information about it (e.g., “spiders are scary”; LoBue, Kim, & Delgado, 2019). In other words, parents’ emotional responses to things like a pandemic can serve as a model for how children should react to it as well.
Together, this research suggests that parents’ own mental health and general emotionality can have downstream effects on their children. So while we often worry about the countless things that can negatively impact our kids, it turns out that worry itself should be on the top of that list. This means that even though there is a lot to fret about right now, there is a good reason not to let all of those worries get in the way of your own mental health. And if your child’s mental health wasn’t enough to convince you to take yours seriously, there’s also a well-documented relationship between anxiety, depression, and risk for disease (e.g., Suls & Bunde, 2005). In other words, there is a relation between mental health and how often you get physically sick (Rawson, Bloomer, & Kendall, 1994), and getting sick is exactly what we’re trying to avoid right now.
So instead of giving your child a time out, try to take one yourself; take a break, exercise for 15 minutes, or facetime with a friend. Try to remember that taking care of your own mental health can go a long way towards taking care of your child’s.
For additional information from the CDC about coping with stress and anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic, click here. It includes practical tips about what to do to keep your stress level down, along with information about how to get additional help and support if you need it.
For information about how to talk to your children about the coronavirus, click here.
Wishing you health, safety, and calm.
Photo by Lynccofn Games/flickr
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Cohn, J. F., Matias, R., Tronick, E. Z., Connell, D., & Lyons‐Ruth, K. (1986). Face‐to‐face interactions of depressed mothers and their infants. New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development, 1986(34), 31-45.
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