A recent report published by the COVID-19 Family Study offers reassurance to families in the Netherlands. It finds that the mental health of parents gradually improved during the first lockdown. They gained more confidence in their parenting abilities, while their children’s emotional and behavioural problems also improved.
Nicole Creasey, who leads the project and is completing her PhD at the University of Amsterdam, studies how parenting programmes affect children’s development.
Below, she explains why she decided to take on this project, how its findings last year compare to more recent data, and how she wants to collaborate with other researchers to target families who need more support.
1. Why did you decide to launch the COVID-19 Family Study?
The first lockdown in the Netherlands created obvious challenges for families. Parents had to step into the role of teacher, often while balancing their own work at home. Children were kept away from their peers and spent a lot more time inside the house. I wanted to provide organisations with information about the effects of these circumstances on family wellbeing and parenting so they could give families the right support.
2. Has the study introduced any unexpected challenges or opportunities?
This project has given me the opportunity to connect and work with researchers outside my usual network, which has been really exciting.
The biggest challenge was reaching the most vulnerable families. Our survey was widely distributed to Dutch schools and available in several languages, but our results are still based on an opportunity sample that probably does not represent the experience of the most severely hit families. Hopefully future research can provide more insight into how these groups are coping.
3. School closures seem to be at the core of parental distress. Do you think this is still the case regarding parents’ mental health?
Quite possibly. In the first lockdown we saw that parents of younger children seemed to be particularly affected by the lockdown. This makes sense given that younger children tend to need far more attention from their parents as well as more support with home education than teenagers. This places a huge burden on parents, especially if they are also working from home or living in a single-parent family.
4. Do you think families are faring similarly in the latest lockdowns?
Our fourth wave of data collection is currently ongoing and so we have some idea of how families are coping in the latest lockdown. At a glance, we see that parents report more stress and depressive symptoms than in any other wave. Parents are also reporting that children’s emotional and behaviour problems have increased recently and that they are feeling less confident as parents.
We could find that, like the first lockdown, parents' mental health gradually improves. But the data still highlights a real need for policymakers, organisations, and researchers to put their heads together and work out how parents could be better supported during this lockdown.
5. How do you think mental health services could be better designed or prioritised to the meet the needs of the Dutch population?
We know from child development research that prevention is often better than cure. Therefore it’s important that parents have access to guidance and support even if they are not struggling severely. The pandemic has made us consider new ways to connect with one another and this should translate to early intervention services. Online preventive programmes and e-learning for parents is well within reach.
6. What are your hopes for the study moving forward?
I am really keen to link up with other researchers to examine if there are particular groups who are more affected by the pandemic in terms of their mental health and parenting. Single-parent families or those with children that have learning difficulties, for example, need the right interventions the most.
We are also planning to look at whether the pandemic has had a positive effect on people’s parenting skills and whether we can harvest information about these families to inform preventive interventions.
7. What advice do you have for researchers in this field and for families?
I think it is time we as researchers go out into specific communities and identify what their needs are during the pandemic and how we can build community resilience.
My advice to families is to stay in touch with other parents. Be honest with one another about what’s not going so well and share what works well for your family. Parents shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help. I am a member of Preventive Youth Care, which has just launched a free coaching programme for families in the Netherlands. Sign up here for more info.