Parents were anxious and stressed in the early days of the pandemic, a Campbell University professor found

Miranda van Tilburg

A study by a Campbell University professor conducted soon after schools closed for in-person instruction found parents stressed out and reporting higher levels of anxiety because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The study was led by Miranda van Tilburg, a professor of clinical research at the university.  It was conducted April 10-17, nearly a month after schools closed for in-person instruction.

The researchers contend the findings provide data to make the argument for increased mental health care.

“People might wonder, ‘We know we’re more stressed. Why are you telling me this?’ but in science, we always have to show the numbers,” van Tilburg says. “And I think it also validates a lot of parents and tells them they’re not alone. It’s normal to feel this way during this pandemic. A lot of people are struggling.”

Thirty-nine percent of parents reported that dealing with children was more stressful than before pandemic restrictions. More than one-third of parents worried about the future of their jobs “a lot” or “a great deal,” and 30% of parents found their jobs to be more stressful, the study found.

Nearly half of the parents reported mild to moderate levels of anxiety (44.6%) and depression (42.2%) during that time. The stress, anxiety and depression levels were higher in parents of children with chronic conditions.

“In our study, we looked at the main stressors due to COVID-19. A lot of them were work-related — people were losing their jobs or having their pay reduced. And even if they weren’t affected yet, they were worried about the future of their jobs. Another stressor for parents was online schooling and children being at home without access to their usual social support system. Daycares were closed, schools were closed, playdates were not happening.”

The effect of pandemic-related stress on children was not reported in the study. Van Tilburg — whose past research has focused primarily on pediatrics — says higher stress, anxiety and depression levels in parents can have a negative impact on their children.

“We’ve found that when parents are dealing with something traumatic, how smaller children respond to these events depends on how their parents respond,” she says. “Some children will breeze through traumatic experiences, because their parents are helping them see it in a different light — helping them cope and showing that that, yes, this is hard, but we can deal with this.”

Van Tilburg called the country’s mental health system “underfunded” with a lack of quality providers.

“Knowing we will have this tsunami of kids and parents coming for mental health care between now and the next couple of years, we are going to overtax the system and not really be able to help everyone,” she says. “It’s sad, but it is a reality that we need to prepare for.”

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