Pandemic stress creates a destructive feedback loop in multi-child families, often at the detriment of one sibling over the others
The stress associated with and compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic is real. We’ve all felt Covid stress at some point, be it thanks to technical difficulties with at-home learning, trying to manage working from home, or dealing with long periods of social isolation. Many parents have had to juggle all of those responsibilities and then some, especially those with families with two or more children in the household.
A new study from the University of Waterloo suggests that when Covid-19 disrupts families with multiple children, one sibling is affected more than the others. This, in turn, only adds more stress to caregivers’ plates, which can lead to reactivity and a feedback loop of stress, anger, anxiety, and depression between the parents and their child who is struggling the most.
“Our study shows that parents tend to be most reactive and least positive to the child showing the highest levels of mental health difficulties,” said Dillon Browne, the study’s lead author and a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Waterloo, in a press release for the university.
While yes, it is not exactly rocket science that the pandemic is stressful AF, it is worth noting that the study found that the child in multi-children homes who was having the hardest time also tended to get the hardest time from parents.
The study suggests that the child’s mental health influences the parent’s mental health
“Struggles with mental health among family members exacerbate each other in a feedback loop,” Browne said. “Our study suggests that the direction of influence appears to go from the child’s mental health to parenting, not parenting to child mental health.”
The research team analyzed data from over 500 caregivers and 1,000 siblings. Parents with more than two kids between five and 18 years old answered surveys on how Covid stress affected family dynamics and mental health over a two-month time period.
“A lot of research studies have pointed to mental-health challenges associated with the pandemic for children and parents. This work adds insight into how pandemic-related disruption goes beyond the individual and infiltrates the relational environment of the family unit,” Brown said.
The study’s findings suggest that family therapy would benefit a household stuck in this negative feedback loop
“Understanding children’s mental health difficulties during COVID-19 requires a family system lens because of the numerous ways the pandemic affects the family as a unit. Comprehensive interventions for children’s mental health require an examination of caregiver, sibling, and whole-family dynamics,” Browne, who is also the current Canada Research Chair in Child and Family Clinical Psychology, explained.