Teens’ COVID-19 Stress Levels Tied to Parents’ Education

Teens’ COVID-19 Stress Levels Tied to Parents’ Education

Sarah CollierStudy lead author and graduate student Sarah Collier Villaume is a researcher Emma Adam's lab.Family education levels predicted how much stress teenagers felt during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new study by researchers at Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy.

The research, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, found that the teens living in households with low to moderate levels of formal education reported feeling more than four times as much stress about their health and living situation than their peers from highly educated households.

Household education levels also affected mood. Teens from households with less education said they felt more ashamed, caring, and excited than before the pandemic. Adolescents who lived in highly educated households reported decreases in anger and excitement.

All groups, regardless of the education level of those in the home, reported feeling lonelier during the pandemic. 

“Adolescents who have at least one parent with a graduate degree were largely spared from the increases in stress and changes in mood that their peers from less educated families reported,” said study lead author Sarah Collier Villaume, a doctoral student in human development and social policy and researcher in professor Emma Adam’s Contexts of Adolescent Stress and Thriving (COAST) lab.

“Given that socioeconomic disparities in both stress and health have been widely documented, a pandemic that disproportionately increases stress for adolescents from less educated households may exacerbate existing inequalities,” Collier Villaume said.  

Prior work, including research from School of Education and Social Policy economist Diane Schanzenbach, director of the Institute for Policy Research, and Northwestern political scientist James Druckman, has found that economic impacts of COVID-19 were borne unequally by household education and socioeconomic status.

This new study, one of the first to look at high school students during COVID-19, keys in on impacts on adolescent stress and mood that could affect long-term health and wellbeing in teens.

Adam’s team leveraged data from an ongoing study that includes a racially and ethnically diverse sample of 128 high school students. The researchers collected pre- and pandemic data on stress levels, sources of stress, and mood states, to look at both varied impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and the additional stressful events of 2020, including protests against police violence and white supremacy following the murder of George Floyd.

The study, “High parental education protects against changes in adolescent stress and mood early in the COVID-19 pandemic,” was supported by a Lyle Spencer Research Award from the Spencer Foundation and a grant supporting Northwestern’s Multidisciplinary Program in Education Sciences from the US Department of Education.

Adam and Harvard University’s Adriana Umaña-Taylor served as primary investigators; SESP graduate student Jacquelyn E. Stephens and Ednah Nwafor coauthored the study.

Given that the burden of the pandemic periods was borne unequally, social policies could alleviate key sources of stress, the researchers argued. 

“Ongoing or expanded support in the form of nutritional assistance, access to health insurance, and income replacement could help to relieve pandemic-related financial or health stress for more families,’ they wrote.


By Julie Deardorff
Last Modified: 10/12/21