On March 31 2021, PLOS Computational Biology introduced a new journal requirement: mandated code sharing. If the research process included the creation…
Loes Janssen and Marie-Louise Kullberg used their ongoing Parent-Adolescent Interaction study as a baseline to investigate the well-being of Dutch adolescents and parents in April 2020, about one month after the participants were initially subject to local lockdown procedures. I spoke with the two researchers about the biggest surprise of their study, the need for diverse coping strategies, and one lesson that they hope the general public can take from their paper as lockdowns continue.
How did you get involved in this study and why do you believe this research is important?
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we suddenly had to work from home and pause the data collection of our PhD research project (‘RE-PAIR’). Within the RE-PAIR project, we already collected ecological momentary assessments (EMA) on mood and parenting behaviors in healthy adolescents and their parents during the past few years. Not being involved in any data collection due to the pandemic could mean having a lot of time to write papers… However, we both like to have some variation in the types of tasks we need to do. As for many researchers from all kind of disciplines—from immunologist to historians—the beginning of March also felt as an opportunity for us, psychologists, to investigate the impact of these exceptional circumstances.
Within our research group, we decided to repeat the EMA to investigate the impact of the pandemic on mood and parenting in daily life, as we already had nice and complete baseline data of our families. By assessing mood and parenting at multiple moments per day, we were able to gain fine-grained insight into the impact of the pandemic on well-being in daily life.
Were any of your findings particularly surprising or were the results of your study relatively in line with your expectations?
Yes, we were partly surprised by our findings. We expected that the COVID-19 pandemic would have had a more negative impact on well-being of parents, adolescents and parenting behavior, and we only found support for this regarding negative affect of parents. We also expected that a person’s intolerance of uncertainty would predict an increase in their negative affect and a decrease in their positive affect. This was not the case in our study.
However, we did expect and found individual differences among our participants: for some parents, negative affect increased, while for others it remained the same or even decreased. This makes sense, since spending more time together as a family could also have positive effects for some families. Moreover, our sample consisted of a fairly healthy group of parents and adolescents, living in favorable circumstances, which might make the situation more bearable as compared to families who struggle with mental or physical health problems or living in less fortunate environments.
While the struggles that the parents and adolescents in your study face tend to differ (ex. the adolescents struggled with boredom whereas the parents did not), some of the coping mechanisms (watching tv-shows and online contact with friends and relatives) were effective for both groups. Why do you think that was the case with some but not all coping mechanisms?
We feel it is important to acknowledge that persons from different ages/stages in life (as parents versus adolescents in our study) cope differently with negative situations and emotions: Adolescents are in a phase that they start to spend more time with friends and being away from their family, whereas parents often like to keep the family close and, for instance, cook and dine together. Nonetheless, almost everyone brightens up from some social contact (even online) or behavioral activation (e.g. cooking, walking, painting etc.), as can be seen in the image below.
The manuscript ends with advice for policy makers regarding the “one size does not fit all” effectiveness of coping strategies. Since this study occurred in April, have you noticed any improvements to the availability and diversity of coping strategies?
Within the Dutch policy to control Corona outbreaks, regulate hospital admissions and protect vulnerable people, the government emphasizes to remain healthy, also by doing sports, for instance. Also, even though the numbers of corona-infected cases increased during a few weeks the past months (Fall 2020), schools remained open. As we know from recent research as well, this is important as children and adolescent friendships predict resilient functioning (van Harmelen et al., 2020). Going to school enables them to easily meet their friends.
However, we feel policy makers could inform citizens more on practical coping strategies for families to foster mental well-being. We know for instance that staying active and exercising can boost your mood, but without a regular commute to work and regular sports activities, it is good to provide some alternative strategies which fit all different levels of lockdown.
Several potential factors that could be further studied are mentioned in the article, but do you think applying your methodology to other populations of people or during a different 2-week stretch of the pandemic would provide useful data?
Yes, we believe that applying the methodology of EMA to other populations could provide us with useful information on which groups of people are struggling in the current situation. For instance, gaining insights in how parents or adolescents with psychological problems, such as anxiety or depression, are affected by the pandemic.
The timing of our study is also of importance. We have collected data during the first part of the lockdown in the Netherlands, without any prospect of relaxation of the regulations. If we would study mental well-being now, during the current—less strict but still prolonging—lockdown, we might get different results.
If the general public were to take one lesson from your study, what should that be?
As we will still spend a lot of time at home, conflicts and irritations among household members could make it hard to keep the atmosphere at home comfortable, a piece of practical advice to families is to cherish small positive interactions with each other on a regular basis. For instance, ask each other which person you admire and why, or go for a short walk together. Even those small activities or conversations could improve the overall family atmosphere. Above all, we need to keep in mind that all families are different, so within the possibilities, find what suits your family best to remain sane together.
I thank both Loes and Marie-Louise providing their thoughtful comments and for their hard work as researchers.
Janssen LHC, Kullberg M-LJ, Verkuil B, van Zwieten N, Wever MCM, van Houtum LAEM, et al. (2020) Does the COVID-19 pandemic impact parents’ and adolescents’ well-being? An EMA-study on daily affect and parenting. PLoS ONE 15(10): e0240962. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0240962
van Harmelen, AL., Blakemore, S.J., Goodyer, I.M. et al. The Interplay Between Adolescent Friendship Quality and Resilient Functioning Following Childhood and Adolescent Adversity. ADV RES SCI (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s42844-020-00027-1