How the Pandemic Changed Family Dynamics

The potential impact of COVID-19 on adolescents’ social development.


 The social effects of quarantine hit younger adolescents particularly hard, derailing typical development.

 During COVID-19, family was more influential than friends during a developmental period when the opposite would normally be true.   Siblings may have functioned as a buffer against the social effects of quarantine for older adolescents.

 The social landscape has looked wildly different over the past year and a half. Because of the quarantines and social restrictions made necessary by the COVID-19 pandemic, in-person social interactions were greatly reduced in 2020 as many found themselves spending the majority of their time at home with family, and away from friends and colleagues.

 Previous research has already connected quarantine and increased mental health issues that have been observed during the pandemic Adolescence is a time of social exploration where peers begin to play a greater role than parents as teens move toward independence, so the disruption of this normative timeline, and particularly interactions with friends, is cause for concern.

 Cross-sectional studies on the effects of COVID-19 have shown that maintaining friendships is something children and adolescents were bothered by and that while online social connections can be beneficial, in-person interactions are more effective.

  A recent study led by Dr. Reuma Gadassi-Polack in our lab expanded what is known about the effects of COVID-19 quarantine by looking at adolescents’ social interactions and depressive symptoms before and during the pandemic.

 Researchers collected data from kids using short questionnaires completed daily, a year before COVID and again at the beginning of the pandemic. Each day, participants reported both positive and negative interactions with family members and peers and their depressive symptoms.

 The study looked at 112 participants (age 8-15) who completed daily questionnaires in both the initial pre-COVID data collection (Wave 1) and the data collection during COVID (Wave 2).

 Researchers were able to capture information about both individual relationships and how they affect one another via “spillover,” a concept that will be discussed further below.

COVID Had Greater Negative Effects on Younger Adolescents

 In typical development, we would expect to see uniform increases in interactions with peers alongside decreases in interactions with parents (e.g., Lam et al., 2012; Larson et al., 1991; Larson et al., 1996). Instead, younger (but not older) participants had significantly fewer positive interactions with peers during COVID compared to pre-COVID.

 For participants 13 and older, significantly more positive interactions with siblings were seen during COVID vs. before. This led to a greater negative impact on younger adolescents, who lost positive interactions with peers without gaining any positive interactions with siblings like older adolescents.

 In fact, younger adolescents had more negative interactions with siblings than friends or parents. For both age groups, negative interactions with friends significantly decreased while there were no other significant decreases in other relationships.

 This finding presents a different facet of the move to online school: for some, this was an opportunity to escape a negative environment. Altogether, the lack of the expected increase in interactions with friends suggests that the COVID-19 pandemic has derailed the typical trajectory of social development.

 The larger effect can potentially be credited to less social development as younger adolescents are experiencing the same effects earlier in development, with less social skills in place.

 A further implication of these results is that in-person interactions cannot be neatly substituted with virtual interaction.

Family Members Were More Influential than Friends During the Early Stages of COVID-19

 Looking at a process named “spillover” allowed researchers to understand the connections within the family, family subsystems, and peer relationships. The concept of spillover is grounded in the idea that our social world is made up of subsystems, including those within the family: the mother and father is a subsystem, as is the parent and child, or the siblings. 

 These subsystems are of course connected (e.g., the mother-father relationship is related to the mother-child relationship), but not without some boundaries. When these boundaries become weaker, interactions in one subsystem can affect interactions in other subsystems via spillover.

 For example, an argument between parents can cause each parent to be more likely to argue with their child. What began as a negative interaction in the mother-father relationship has then spilled over into the parent-child relationship. This example would be considered negative spillover, where negative occurrences in one subsystem lead to negative interactions or feelings in another.

  Positive spillover occurs when the same thing happens with positive occurrences. For example, being praised by their mother might cause a child to be kinder to their sibling. Then, a positive interaction in the mother-child relationship has spilled over into the sibling relationship.

 COVID-19 appeared to create a more closed family system, with fewer spillover effects from outside and more inside. In other words, interactions with family members impacted interactions with friends to a lesser degree during COVID.

 Separate interactions with family and friends are expected to affect each other less as adolescents develop typically. However, in the context of the pandemic, this was particularly detrimental for those who already had more negative family relationships prior to COVID as there was less day-level positive spillover and increased negative spillover on the individual level.

Increase in Depressive Symptoms Related to Family Interactions

 Changes were not only seen in interactions, but also in levels of depressive symptoms. Depressive symptoms increased significantly by almost 40 percent during COVID-19, regardless of age.

 This signifies the severity of COVID-19’s impact on adolescent mental health, above and beyond any increase in depression typically seen in development (e.g., Salk et al., 2016).

 The occurrence of less positive and more negative interactions with family members significantly predicted depressive symptoms during COVID-19.

More Positive than Negative Interactions and a New Role for Siblings

 The effects of the social changes wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic were not wholly negative, however. Overall, most kids reported five times more positive interactions than negative interactions.

 Importantly, having more positive interactions with family members was associated with smaller increases in depressive symptoms during COVID. The effect of the pandemic on sibling relationships was also more positive.

 Few would be surprised to hear siblings had a high number of negative interactions – much higher compared to any other relationship. However, increased positive interactions without an increase in negative interactions with siblings was seen in older adolescents, suggesting that siblings can compensate at least somewhat for the decrease in in-person peer interactions.

 Combined with prior research on siblings’ positive effects on mental health and loneliness (McHale, Updegraff, & Whiteman, 2012; Wikle, Ackert, & Jenson, 2019), these results suggest that the presence of siblings is beneficial during a time of social isolation.

 In general, this research shines a light on how important peer interactions are for normative development and the necessity of ensuring children and adolescents are given opportunities to spend time, especially in-person, with peers.

Take-Home Points

 The social effects of quarantine hit younger adolescents particularly hard, derailing typical development. During COVID-19, family was more influential than friends during a developmental period when the opposite would normally be true. Family negativity predicted the increase in depressive symptoms during COVID-19.

 In families with more positive interactions, there was less of an increase. Siblings potentially functioned as a buffer for the social effects of quarantine for older adolescents.