One result of the COVID-19 pandemic has been nearly nonstop “family time”— magnifying challenges for families now spending time together 24/7. New research from the WVU Department of Psychology is helping parents and caregivers communicate with and support their children during this unusually stressful time.
Using research-backed therapies that she helped pioneer, Professor of Psychology Cheryl McNeil and her students have created quick relief strategies for parents caring for young children around the clock, especially those struggling with child misbehavior during lockdowns, daycare closures and remote schooling.
The Cooperation Chart is a tool parents and caregivers can use to help communicate with children from ages 3 to 10 about their behaviors, using praise and warnings to identify positive and negative actions, respectively.
“The demands on parents have grown exponentially because of COVID-19. Social distancing has challenged families with managing a healthy work-life balance. Parents are struggling with disruptive behaviors from their children more so now than ever,” McNeil said. “When families are under stress, as is the case during a pandemic, extra motivation may be needed to make positive sibling interactions, household chores and cooperation with parent requests a priority. The chart is a helpful tool for encouraging that motivation.”
“The demands on parents have grown exponentially because of COVID-19. Social distancing has challenged families with managing a healthy work-life balance. Parents are struggling with disruptive behaviors from their children more so now than ever. When families are under stress, as is the case during a pandemic, extra motivation may be needed to make positive sibling interactions, household chores and cooperation with parent requests a priority. The chart is a helpful tool for encouraging that motivation.”
– Cheryl McNeil, Professor of Psychology
The chart can be printed from the Cooperation Chart website or drawn by families as an engaging art project. It features two columns per child, one for happy faces and one for sad faces.
“The Cooperation Chart is an easily integrated and managed behavioral management program that can be used in most any situation, but it is especially helpful during the pandemic. For parents overwhelmed by childcare, rewarding positive behaviors with smiley faces and providing two-choice statements bring a newfound level of consistency to the family at a time when it is lacking,” said alumna Morgan Simpson (BS Psychology, ’20), who spent her last summer before graduate school researching in McNeil’s lab. “With how unpredictable this year has been, we pushed to create quality products for struggling parents and therapists in a very timely manner.”
Parents and caregivers are encouraged to acknowledge behavior with their children throughout the day by identifying both positive and negative actions and tallying them on the chart. If a child receives mostly happy faces at the end of the time period, they receive a surprise reward.
McNeil says it is important to place the chart where both the caregivers and children can easily see it and interact with it throughout the day.
The key to using the chart is consistency, so caregivers should review behaviors after each meal, McNeil explains.
“We want to tally the happy and sad faces at three times a day: breakfast, lunch and dinner. By providing rewards after each meal, it helps us to remember to reinforce our children's positive behavior throughout the day,” McNeil said. “Dividing the day into three segments also allows our children to work on improving and maintaining positive behavior since they'll have opportunities to earn rewards multiple times each day. By being consistent in your responses to your child's positive and negative behaviors and introducing brief, free and fun mystery rewards, children will become motivated to behave appropriately.”
While some parents and caregivers may have concerns about the frequency of the rewards, McNeil stresses that they are not intended to be elaborate, expensive or require an extensive amount of time. Instead, free activity awards like a game of tic-tac-toe or follow-the-leader are encouraged. The mystery component of the rewards is also engaging because children look forward to the element of surprise.
Junior psychology student Kelsey Keen helped create ideas for the rewards.
“It was important for me to research little things that kids would love and that would be easy for parents,” Keen said. “The point of the Cooperative Chart is to make childcare easier during this pandemic, so the rewards I chose were little things like ‘draw a picture’ or ‘play tag.’ It was rewarding to be able to help these parents during these times, even in the smallest of ways.”
May 2020 psychology graduate and current Master of Social Work student Vanessa Hamade helped translate the Cooperation Chart from English to Spanish to make it accessible for even more families.
“This was very valuable and dear to me since my first language is Spanish,” she said. “I knew how many Spanish-speaking caregivers around the world were going to benefit from this project.”
McNeil even used the Cooperation Chart with her own children when they were young.
“I used it during challenging parenting times, like long car rides or when my boys were stuck indoors because of bad weather. When the boys were getting wild, being disrespectful or fighting, and my husband and I were just at our wits’ ends, I would pull out the Cooperation Chart,” McNeil said. “It always helped to motivate all of us to focus on being more positive and more cooperative as a family.”
The chart is derived from parent-child interaction therapy. Developed in the 1980s, its goal is to treat children ages 2 to 7 who have disruptive behavioral disorders. The treatment focuses on improving the relationship between the caregiver and child with guidance and coaching from a specially trained therapist.
For more information, including an instructional video, reward ideas and printable charts, visit thecooperationchart.com. →
Navigating teen depression and anxiety
One-fifth of teenagers report a lifetime prevalence of depression, and as many as one-fourth report active use of alcohol and drugs.
One possible explanation for this behavior is the idea that pressures to appear happy or feel good could ultimately lead to depression or substance abuse, explains Professor of Psychology Amy Gentzler.
“Our project is unique because we take the view that it’s possible that being too focused on happiness or on the pursuit of positive emotions can be harmful and negatively impact well-being or behaviors,” she said.
“Our project is unique because we take the view that it’s possible that being too focused on happiness or on the pursuit of positive emotions can be harmful and negatively impact well-being or behaviors.”
- Amy Gentzler, Professor of Psychology
She and her research team are investigating whether teens’ beliefs about happiness and their attempts to pursue it predict their emotional well-being or substance use. Gentzler, along with alumna Katelyn Romm (PhD Psychology, ’20) and doctoral students Yea Won Anna Park and Jeffrey Hughes, are in the process of surveying nearly 300 high school students and their parents.
“We are focusing on this population because this is when the teens are adjusting to high school,” Gentzler said. “Their rates of depression increase substantially, particularly for girls, and it is often when they may begin using alcohol or other drugs.”
The team also hopes to understand the process through which teens learn how to think about happiness and pursue it throughout their childhood.
“To explore this further, we are also examining parents’ beliefs about happiness and positive emotions and how their beliefs and behaviors influence their teens,” she said. “Even if parents aren’t explicitly teaching their children about happiness and how to pursue it, parents may be socializing their children through their own behaviors. We expect some similarities between parents and teens’ beliefs and behaviors.”
While a few studies in this area have been conducted with adults, Gentzler’s team is the first to focus on teens, publishing the first study in 2019.
“Other research has shown that being too obsessed or focused on happiness paradoxically decreases positive emotions and predicts more depressive symptoms or loneliness, especially in the U.S.,” she said.
Because their earlier research with youth samples took place at a single point in time, they are now expanding their project with funding from the National Institutes of Health to study teens’ emotions over a longer period.
“Positive affect may be especially pronounced and consequential in this developmental period, as adolescents have relatively intense emotions, including reward-seeking behavior, and relatively low levels of self-control in emotional contexts compared to adults,” Gentzler said.
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the team has adapted their questions to explore how social distancing and other related lifestyle changes may have influenced teens’ and their parents’ emotions and behaviors.
“We asked about their emotion distress – how much they are worried, sad, stressed, depressed or have trouble focusing – during COVID-19,” Gentzler said. “Our results show that teens who reported higher levels of general anxiety symptoms a year or more ago also tend to report more emotional distress during COVID-19. This association may not be surprising, as the pandemic is making a lot of people anxious, but it suggests that teens with a history of elevated symptoms may be at higher risk for distress during the pandemic.”
A major factor for helping teens navigate these emotions is the emotional responses and support they receive from their mothers.
“Having a mother who displays more positive emotions and gratitude appears to buffer this association. In other words, adolescents with pre-existing anxiety were not at risk for experiencing COVID-related psychological distress if their mothers reported engaging in greater positive emotions and gratitude,” said Romm, now a postdoctoral fellow at George Washington University.
“This makes sense, as mothers who engage in these behaviors may socialize their adolescents to derive greater well-being from and appreciate their positive experiences. These adolescents may be focused more on the positive events occurring in their lives and may, in turn, be less likely to experience distress related to COVID-19.”
They learned that one of teens’ biggest fears is the unknown and if the current situation would become the “new normal.”
“Some showed concern about social events, school life, sports and just the fact the usual normal seems taboo. It’s sad in a sense because, from a developmental perspective, teens are wired to form intimate friendships and widen their social parameters during adolescence,” said Park, who grew up in South Korea. “The pandemic has added on another developmental challenge for these teens, and they are worried. Some media outlets portray adolescents who don’t seem to care about society and are selfish individuals. Still, our study results show that they do care and that they are anxious about what is going on in their surroundings.”
Understanding how individuals react to and cope with stress is especially valuable during the pandemic.
“The information we received suggests that adolescents who are more anxious may report more distress in reaction to these stressful times,” Hughes said. “This knowledge can be useful for parents or educators to know as they may recognize anxious adolescents and provide more support during stressful situations.”
As the pandemic persists, the team hopes this project can help families continue to navigate the unpredictable circumstances.
“This work helps to shed light on some things parents and teens can work on at home to help reduce anxious teens’ risk for experiencing high levels of psychological distress during this stressful time. I think this is especially important right now given the barriers to mental health services due to the restrictions of the pandemic, including social distancing and less access to mental health resources in school,” Romm said. “It is now even more important to get research out there that can help adolescents who may be unable to receive the services they were receiving before the pandemic.”