Sensitive Children and the COVID-19 Lockdown
21st June 2022 - By Dr Francesca Lionetti
About the authors
Dr Francesca Lionetti is a developmental psychologist and a researcher with expertise in parenting, attachment, socio-emotional development and Environmental Sensitivity. She has contributed to the development and validation of sensitivity measures for infancy and childhood, and is involved in the longitudinal investigation of how sensitivity develops and interacts with the environment.
We investigated highly sensitive children’s behaviour during the COVID-19 lockdown in Italy. Sensitive children showed fewer behavioural problems when experiencing a positive and supportive family environment at home during the lockdown. Our study shows that heightened sensitivity can be an advantage even during a challenging situation as long as children receive the required support.
Parenting, COVID-19 restrictions, and children’s sensitivity
Restrictions during the first wave of the COVID-19 outbreak imposed unexpected changes in many families’ living conditions, with mothers of small children reporting the highest levels of anxiety and depression .
Psychological distress is likely to negatively affect parents’ ability to look after their children, adding to the adverse impact the pandemic had on children. However, the literature on the impact of COVID-19 restrictions on children reports mixed findings and some studies actually show that children were able to find positive aspects during the forced quarantine experience .
Caring and supportive parenting may be especially important during stressful and upsetting situations such as a national lockdown given that such positive parenting may protect children from experiencing high levels of emotional stress in response to the significant restrictions. This might be particularly true for highly sensitive children who are more susceptible to environmental influences, thus being also especially receptive to positive and supportive experiences.
Across two independent samples we investigated the role of children’s sensitivity regarding the relationship between parenting and changes in behavioural problems before and after the strict lockdown imposed in Italy by a presidential decree from March 9th to May 3rd, 2020 .
We expected that the impact of the quality of the family environment during the lockdown would be stronger for highly sensitive children compared to less sensitive ones.
Importantly, given that sensitivity is associated with higher responsivity to both negative and positive experiences, we expected that highly sensitive children would not only be at a higher risk for the development of psychological problems in the context of an overwhelmed family environment, but would also benefit more from the positive aspects of supportive home environments.
We collected information on children’s internalizing and externalizing behavioural problems before and during the lockdown in two community samples of 72 preschool children and 94 primary school children.
Parents of pre-schoolers reported on their level of stress experienced during parenting, and in primary school children we considered the parent-child emotional closeness as an indicator of the home environment. In order to measure children’s sensitivity, we considered temperamental fearfulness in pre-schoolers  and the individual trait of sensory processing sensitivity in primary school children .
Preschool children with high sensitivity showed lower levels of externalizing behaviours when parents reported less stress during the lockdown. In other words, they actually seemed to benefit from spending more time with their parents during the lockdown, but only when the home environment was characterized by low levels of stress in the parent–child relationship.
Highly sensitive primary school children showed overall slightly higher levels of internalizing behaviours both before and during the lockdown. However, high levels of parent–child closeness were particularly helpful for highly sensitive children. Children with high sensitivity showed lower levels of internalizing behaviours during the lockdown if they experienced a highly supportive parent–child relationship.
What does this mean for parents and children?
The increased amount of time spent at home during the lockdown in relation to the COVID-19 outbreak was not necessarily negative for all children. A positive family climate, characterised by low levels of parenting stress and high levels of parent-child closeness was particularly beneficial for highly sensitive children. These children showed reduced externalizing and internalizing symptoms during the lockdown, when they spent more time at home, compared to before the lockdown.
We assume that highly sensitive children benefitted more from spending time in supportive homes, because the extended experience of positive and nurturing care allowed children to process feelings of confusion, unpredictability, and change in relation to the lockdown, helping them to better regulate their emotions and behaviours. Furthermore, spending more time in a positive home environment, may also have allowed these children to structure their day according to their preferences, selecting their preferred levels of stimulation.
As reported in various research studies (see a previous blog: Parenting Quality and Sensitive Children – Sensitivity Research), parenting quality matters for all children but especially for highly sensitive children. We further demonstrated in our current study, that positive parenting can transform difficulties into unexpected opportunities for growth, especially in the case of highly sensitive children.
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