“Pregnancy and child birth can bring joy but also add complexity and stress to our lives,” said Zgierska. “The pandemic has heightened that stress among expectant mothers and families who now worry about impacts on pregnancy, mother and child health, and family well-being. We need to actively support pregnant women, new mothers, and their families so that families and children can thrive.”
Too much of a good thing?
Another Huck seed grant focuses on how the pandemic might influence family dynamics. From stay-at-home orders that were issued in the early spring, to the recognition that their children will be educated at least partially through remote learning, many families have been spending an unprecedented amount of time with each other. While this has some benefits, it can also aggravate existing strains and create new ones.
Mark Feinberg, research professor of health and human development at Penn State, said families may face a range of stressors during the pandemic. When lockdown orders went into effect across the country, many people were suddenly unemployed or on furlough, without a steady income in an already tumultuous time. Feinberg said it's hard to overestimate the stress this can bring to an individual, let alone a family.
“There’s a lot of research that shows financial stress translates into more family conflict and aggression, harsh parenting, and even child abuse,” he said. “This stress affects how calm, patient and supportive a parent can be. Research from previous times of widespread economic stress shows how detrimental it can be for families, parenting and ultimately for kids' well-being.”
The parent-child relationship is not the only one within many households. There are also relationships between siblings. While sibling roughhousing and teasing are sometimes written off as harmless, Feinberg said these relationships can sometimes become high-conflict and even abusive, with effects lasting into adulthood.
He added that sibling relations can have almost as much of an influence on children's lifelong well-being, mental health, social competence and quality of romantic relationships, as parenting.
“There’s a lot of jealousy, rivalry, physical aggression and other dimensions of conflict that go on in some — but not all — sibling relationships,” Feinberg said. “And while some researchers are working in the field of sibling relations, there’s still not a lot of understanding about how to deal with the more violent aspects of sibling relationships."
Feinberg said that while he and other researchers can use their previous work to predict how the pandemic is affecting families, there is still a lot they do not know. He recently received COVID-19 seed grant funding to study the effects of the pandemic on two groups of families that the researchers have been studying for several years.
“We’re hoping to survey these families several times during the pandemic and over the next few years to examine how lockdowns and other changes to daily life initially disrupted their lives and how they’re adjusting over time,” Feinberg said.