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COVID & Families Across Cultures

Duke Center for Child and Family Policy Researcher Jennifer Lansford joins Sanford School Dean Judith Kelley on the Policy 360 podcast to discuss ongoing research in nine countries around the world related to COVID-19 and parents' and young people's mental health.  Subscribe to Policy 360.

COVID-19 has upended lives around the world. Prior to the pandemic, Jennifer Lansford and her colleagues were conducting in-depth, multi-year research on children and families in nine countries. They are now expanding their research to consider how COVID-19 relates to young people and their parents’ mental health.

Jennifer Lansford is a research professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University where she’s an affiliate of Duke’s Center for Child & Family Policy.

Conversation Highlights

Responses have been edited for clarity.

About the project

We launched [a previous, long-running project] Parenting Across Cultures in 2008, by recruiting a sample of eight-year-old children and their mothers and fathers in nine countries. The countries are China, Colombia, Italy, Jordan, Kenya, the Philippines, Sweden, Thailand, and the United States. And we’ve been conducting annual interviews since 2008 with these children, who are now in their early twenties, and their parents.

So we had this research infrastructure in these nine different countries, and these collaborative teams with researchers at universities in these nine countries, and when the COVID pandemic hit we thought, “This is clearly disruptive across the world,” and we had an opportunity to better understand how families were coping with the pandemic.

So a colleague here at Duke, Ann Skinner, led the effort in developing a brief measure of experiences during COVID-19. And this measure has now been used by a number of research teams even outside of our project.

How the project set up

We have young peoples’ reports and we have their mothers’ and fathers’ reports. The mothers and fathers are reporting on their own increases in problems during the pandemic. And young people are reporting about increases in problems during the pandemic.

In addition to asking about increases in anxiety and depression and substance use, we also ask people how personally disruptive the pandemic has been. We ask about how compliant they’ve been with their government or health recommendations during the pandemic. And we ask about their confidence in how their government is handling the pandemic.

Takeaways related to parents

A general takeaway is that parents (and this includes mothers and fathers) are in general reporting increases in anxiety and depression — more so than getting in fights or arguments or things like that. It tends to be more of the internalizing end of the spectrum than the externalizing. Parents in general are reporting more substance use during the pandemic than prior to the pandemic. (That’s generally across countries as well.)

But it’s not all doom and gloom at least early in the pandemic. We’re also reporting an increase in the amount of time [parents] were spending doing fun things with their families so that seems like a bright spot in a kind of gloomy picture.

Takeaways related to young people

Overall we found that about half of the now young adult children reported an increase in anxiety and depression during the pandemic.

We also found that about a third reported an increase in arguments and anger. (This is them self-reporting saying, “I feel more angry now than I did before the pandemic,” rather than comparing a measure of anger pre-pandemic with a separate measure of anger during the pandemic).

‘surprising similarities’ among families in multiple countries

[In previous research, we saw] big differences within the nine countries in our sample, [in terms of] the average ages that people do things … and the pandemic has really disrupted that in a way that I think is hard for young people to cope with. Because instead of being able to be independent, many of them had to move back and live with their parents if they were living independently. And weren’t able to do many of the things related to education and seeking jobs that would be normally expected of young people that age.

I think we were a bit surprised that we saw as many similarities across countries as we did, and I think in part (this is speculative) but I think it speaks to how universally disruptive the pandemic was, in ways it’s difficult to cope with.

Best advice for parents on how to deal with young people during the pandemic?

Be supportive and honest and try to keep lines of communication open — acknowledge how hard this is for everyone. Acknowledge that you recognize that [young people are] having to give up a lot in terms of what they would like to be doing in terms of their freedoms — just acknowledge the hardship of how disrupted things are.

And try, within the constraints that are imposed by the pandemic, to give young people as much choice and freedom as possible. During times of lockdown, for example, if there are things that you can give the adolescent choice about (meals or activities to do at home), maybe being more forgiving of screen time, if they’re mostly using that as a way to connect with peers – try to have flexibility and give young people as much choice as they can have within the other restrictions that are being imposed during this time.