Parental Distress and Children’s Well-being: Implication from COVID-19

Written by Leah Lee

Mentored by Zoe Mao

In the face of COVID-19, parents and children have confronted new challenges and adjustments in their daily lives, as many countries have transitioned in-person schooling and child-care facilities to virtual settings. Likewise, physical distancing and public lockdown become detrimental to family life, demanding greater responsibility for parents to child-rearing (Calvano et al., 2021). The World Health Organization reports that this situation can lead to long-term negative consequences on psychological well-being across all ages (Morelli et al., 2020). More specifically, the increasing concerns of parental general mental health and psychological stress well-aligns to the heightened risk for children’s psychological problems such as exhibiting adverse behavioral, emotional, social, and cognitive outcomes. Therefore, it is crucial to understand the interplay between parental distress and children’s emotional and behavioral well-being. The pandemic has also provided us with an opportunity to think about parental resources, perceptions, and coping strategies to enhance parenting effectiveness and parenting behavior.

Parent’s Psychological Distress Concerns to COVID-19

Empirical studies have underlined that the COVID-19 stressors induced multi-dimensional stress for parents and families, including physical and mental health stress, economic stress, parental stress over homeschooling, and increased marital dissatisfaction and domestic violence.

Physical and Mental Health Stress

A community-wide disaster, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, may cause parents to become worried over their own physical and emotional well-being. As imposed lockdown continues, it is possible for parents to run full speed into anxiety and depression (Wu & Xu, 2020). The more prolonged social isolation is imposed, the harder it is for parents to balance family life and employment. The loss of regular daycare facilities also intensifies parents’ mental distress: parents during pandemics reported that childcare at home acutely contributes to their immediate increase in stress (Calvano et al., 2021). Particularly, low-income families have a tough time meeting economic needs as frontline workers in essential services with high physical contact with the virus (Wu & Xu, 2020). What is more, parents who lose their parents or family members due to COVID-19 may experience more psychological distress and fall into grief, which induces a pronounced increase in depression symptoms.

Economic Stress

The heightened risk on family economic well-being becomes a growing concern: more than 30 million people have lost their professions due to COVID-19, particularly among minority populations such as low-socioeconomic status and racial minority households (Wu & Xu, 2020). The current pandemic will continue to impact the national economy and employment, inducing the loss of job opportunities and a financial burden (Wu & Xu, 2020). It is plausible that more families will struggle to afford their living expenses and medical care during and even after the pandemic.

Parental Stress over Homeschooling

As the pandemic extends, online instruction and working from home cause many families to experience long-term stress, leading to anxiety and depression. Remote schooling brings challenges for parents and families, mainly working parents. While adjusting the routine to this “new normal,” it has been difficult for children at home to get effective teaching and learning in families (Wu & Xu, 2020). Notably, children in high need of special education services are challenged by more total adjustment difficulties (Wu & Xu, 2020). Even with parent’s efforts to foster their academic learning, working parents deal with the challenges of keeping children busy and safe at home, which may potentially increase the risk of child maltreatment. The longer the in-person schooling is on hold, the more responsibilities parents have to teach their children academically and support them emotionally.

Marital Dissatisfaction and Intimate Partner Violence

The current pandemic has forced immediate family members, including couples, to spend more time together. Recent studies (Wu & Xu, 2020) have discovered that the increased material conflicts are correlated with financial issues, physical and mental illness. Likewise, many parents reported that the extensive COVID-19 quarantine had decreased the quality of the material relationship, which potentially leads to a higher divorce rate (Wu & Xu, 2020). There is also a higher likelihood of exposure to domestic violence (Wu & Xu, 2020). The victims of partner violence may even have difficulties asking for help and escape from their abusive partners. Such a sharp increase in partner violence is associated with a higher rate of substance abuse which then escalates the risk of child abuse/maltreatment and the likelihood of physical, sexual, and emotional violence.

The Impact of Parental Distress on The Risk of Children’s Well-Being

How does the increased parental stress impact child-parent relationships? The cumulative stressors from COVID-19 challenge not only caregivers but also children. Children of highly distressed caregivers are more vulnerable to the negative psychological impacts.

Increased Potential Child Maltreatment

Stay-at-home order can result in social isolation with children at risk of abuse and neglect. At its core, exposure to stressors induces cognitive, emotional, and physical fatigue, which later amplifies strain on the parent-child bonding. During these imposed lockdowns, when families stay at home for prolonged periods, parents reported a higher incidence of harsh parenting, such as yelling, shouting, and even spanking their children (Imran et al. 2020). Given the closure of childcare centers and schools, children are more prone to undergo further mistreatment, neglect, and child maltreatment. Likely, the high levels of parental stress are associated with harsh parenting practices, impairing parent-child closeness and interaction (Chung et al., 2020). As suggested in recent literature, high parental anxiety and depressive symptoms report is closely linked with higher child abuse potential (Brown et al., 2020).

Intensified Parent-Child Relationship

Following the increasing parenting demand, more parents sacrifice their own well-being to meet the needs of caregiving for their children. But for some, cycles of interpersonal violence between parents, their partners, and their children may follow (Wu & Xu, 2020). Aligned with this linkage, the child-parent relationship may worsen, shown through reports of more behavioral problems, mental illness, or other special needs, increasing children’s risk of maltreatment and adversity. Russel et al. (2020) also noted a clear relationship between mental health indicators and child-parent conflict and closeness: more parental depression symptoms were associated with greater conflict and less closeness with children. Children’s social needs cannot be fully satisfied under the decreased opportunities to play and interact with their peers, which may intensify the relationship with their parents. Without positive, responsive parenting and effective coping strategies, the child-parent closeness and conflict may significantly distort.

High Levels of Hyperactivity/Inattention in Children

The present mental distress in parents also triggers negative behavioral outcomes in children, including hyperactivity and inattention behavior. A recent study suggested that parents’ psychological distress significantly predicted children’s hyperactivity/inattention, accompanied by emotional distress (Marchetti et al., 2020). In turn, children often internalize and externalize their parent’s mental distress, which is reflected in their verbal hostility and aggressive parenting. Accordingly, children are more prone to impaired interpersonal, cognitive, and psychological function, such as poor social competency, a low frustration tolerance, and conduct problems (Marchetti et al., 2020).

Low Children’s Competence and School Readiness

As parents are exposed to a multitude of COVID-19 stressors, there is an increased potential for impact on school readiness and coping competence among children. Notably, the higher levels of parenting stress are correlated with fewer maladaptive coping strategies of children, where they are less likely to cope with social and emotional demands in a school environment (Soltis et al., 2013). Correspondingly, the negative relationship between caregiving stress and child school readiness underscores the significance of effective parenting for academic achievement and interpersonal and social development.

What Now: Parents-and-Children Working Together — Supporting Families During and After COVID-19

As COVID-19 does not appear to be ending soon as well as its possible long-lasting negative impacts on today’s individual and family dynamics, we should recognize how parental resources, perceptions, and coping strategies can act as a buffer to promote effective caregiving and intimate parent-child relationships. It is critical to have a greater awareness of providing positive, responsive parental support and increasing their perceived control.

Develop Stress Management and Adaptive Coping Strategies

Supporting parents’ psychological health should be voiced as it will benefit both parents and children. Adaptive coping strategies are essential to mitigate familial stress and prevent abuse potentials. Stable, supportive, and nurturing parenting positively correlates to children’s positive psychosocial, cognitive, and behavioral outcomes — parents can adequately guide, educate and protect their children more effectively and efficiently (Imran et al., 2020). Thus, parents should look after their mental health, coping competence and model positive psychological attitudes. Both parents and children should be encouraged to maintain active social relationships with others, such as their relatives and friends, through continued contact. Outreach to online emotional support groups such as telemental health services also alleviates social loneliness and promotes flexible responses in stressful situations (Brown et al., 2020).

Promote Supportive Family Environments

To identify their family strength and nurturing resilience, the whole family should create consistent daily routines that can nurture both parents and children. During stressful times, it is helpful to have a set bedtime and mealtime routine for children to feel safe, organized, and secure (Imran et al., 2020). As social distance enables families to spend more time together, they can use this quality time to foster closeness and intimacy with children, such as reading a book, engaging in house chores activities, and indoor and outdoor activities to manage stress and boredom healthily. In doing so, the parent-child intimacy may strengthen, which allows children to expose their vulnerabilities and more openly discuss their feelings.

Increase Parental Internal and External Resources

To protect parental and child physical and emotional wellness during and after a pandemic, greater awareness to educate and enrich parenting resources is needed. Supportive resources that structure and practice self-care rituals should carry more weight. More skill-based interventions need more recognition for parents to foster effective coping strategies, such as cognitive-behavioral, emotion-focused, mindfulness-informed strategies (Brown et al., 2020). These concrete support and resources will help to reduce ineffective parenting practices and adjust their negative perceptions about life changes caused by COVID-19 stressors. In addition, families can be innovative in seeking better access to social services and family therapy (Wu & Xu, 2020). For instance, online consulting services for mental health support in child-related issues (Wu & Xu, 2020). This tailored resource may educate parents to better communicate with their children to address their fear and concerns. Overall, the increased use of family-centered prevention and intervention services will empower the whole family, lowering barriers to access healthcare.


Parenting is foremost to shape the course and outcome of child development (National Academies of Science, 2016). As COVID-19 becomes a new normal for us, it is vital to increase parental awareness in creating a protective, responsive home environment to promote the psychological health of parents and children. Parents and children should also collectively endeavor to combat mental and psychological distress. In the near future, after the pandemic, such awareness and practices of effective caregiving and intimate parent-child relationship will continue to enhance parents’ and children’s well-being.


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