The purpose of this study was to investigate the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on the mental health of children and the effect of parental involvement during the pandemic. We used longitudinal observational data from a large sample of the ABCD study. A total of 4,885 children were analyzed in the study, adjusted for PMQ scores, and then analyzed for changes in CBCL scores before and after the onset of the pandemic. Our findings suggest that the COVID-19 pandemic has a minor adverse effect on children’s mental health. We also found that children raised by parents who practice good parenting styles are emotionally calm and adaptive even in the face of the pandemic. Our research presents two important findings that support the study hypotheses. For each, we will interpret the results obtained below.
First, we hypothesized that mental health problems in children would worsen over time due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The study results support our hypothesis. The emotional problem exacerbated by this pandemic was depression. This finding is consistent with previous studies and shows that depressive symptoms in children are exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic,28–33 as is the case in adults.33–35 However, the withdrawn/depressed behavior went from an average of 53.4 ± 5.7 pre-pandemic to 53.7 ± 5.9 since the onset of the pandemic, which is a change of only 0.3. While the worsening of depressive tendencies for children was statistically significant, the magnitude of deterioration was clinically minor; hence, caution is warranted in the interpretation of these results. Next, this change was similar for attention, which worsened albeit only slightly clinically; the average attention problems went from 53.4 ± 5.4 pre-pandemic to 53.6 ± 5.6 since the onset of the pandemic. Interestingly, the results of our study did not uncover any effects on anxiety or physical complaints. Previous studies have reported that the COVID-19 pandemic does not exacerbate children’s emotional problems.36,37 Rather, emotional problems of children aged 11–16 reportedly diminished in the United Kingdom.36 A longitudinal study of about 1,000 children in England reported a fair reduction in anxiety overall.37 These results are consistent with our findings that the COVID-19 pandemic has no effect on children’s anxiety. Moreover, our findings showed that children’s behavioral problems were unaffected by the pandemic. This result is consistent with the findings of an online cross-sectional study of 1,264 children (aged 2–6) and their parents in two primary schools in Hubei, China.38 Hence, mental health problems, such as anxiety and behavioral issues commonly observed in children, seemed to be largely unaffected by the pandemic.
Subsequently, we verified the hypothesis that parental involvement behavior serves as a protective factor for a child’s mental health even during the pandemic. Parental involvement behavior positively affected children’s mental health, emotional, and behavioral aspects. In particular, when parents and their children engaged in frequent conversations and parental understanding of their child’s condition was high, rule-breaking decreased; when such involvement was weak, the child’s depression increased. A cross-sectional study of 1,655 parents and children in China found that parental attitudes and intimacy with children are positively correlated with the child’s mental or behavioral health.18 These results are consistent with those of our study, which shows that parental child-rearing styles have a crucial impact on children’s mental health even during the COVID-19 pandemic. Our study is a large longitudinal study of children living in the United States, which has the highest number of COVID-19 infections.39 As far as we know, it is the first time that parental involvement has been shown to influence the mental health of children in the United States even during this crisis. During home confinement, children generally interact the most with parents and caregivers; so early detection and care of children’s mental health problems can prevent deterioration.40 This finding may demonstrate that parents and caregivers impact their children’s mental health.
While our findings bring great benefits to this area of study, our research has a limitation. We set March 1, 2020, as the start date of the COVID-19 pandemic, and analyzed those subjects who consented to provide three-year follow-up data from March 1, 2020, onwards. However, the period from March 1, 2020, to the date of actual data acquisition varies by subject, that is, the impact of the duration of the pandemic at the point of data collection has not been considered. The impact of the pandemic on children’s mental health may differ between the early stages of the pandemic and the stages of progress and recovery. In the future, it may be necessary to consider accumulative data across time.
In conclusion, the results of this study indicate that the COVID-19 pandemic may slightly exacerbate depression and attention problems in children. Additionally, even during the global public health crisis caused by COVID-19, positive parent-child relationships have a protective impact on pubescent children’s mental health in the United States.Therefore, increasing parent-child involvement is critical to children’s overall mental health even during the COVID-19 pandemic.