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Has COVID-19 pandemic impacted perceived stress experience by the class of 2021 and their parents?

The COVID-19 pandemic and consequent lockdown have created stress in all spheres of life including education. Students who are already experiencing stress related to the transition to university stemming from college applications and the bittersweet end to high school are now experiencing additional stressors related to the pandemic. Making new adjustments every day in the form of online classes, virtual projects and uncertain exam dates to name a few are stretching the coping skills of everyone involved.

Many parents feel overwhelmed when their children reach high school and find the experience of parenting high school teenagers similar to walking on eggshells. Along with finishing the long to-do-list of college applications and being available for emotional support for their children, they are also expected to keep their worries and fear about their children’s future in check. Stress experienced during the application process not only affects the students but has also been seen to affect their parents. We felt that it would be interesting to explore if and how the COVID- 19 pandemic has had any effect on stress experienced by this group.

What were we looking for?

We felt that one group that may have been affected disproportionately during these trying times would be the high school class of 2021 and their parents. Our aim was to explore how adjusting to the pandemic has affected this cohort with respect to their perception of stress experienced and everyday hassles.

What did we do?

We studied school seniors and their parents residing across eight countries through an online survey using Google Forms in the month of September 2020. Informed consent was taken from both students and mothers after explaining the aim and objective of the study. The student-parent duos were then administered the Perceived Stress Scale (PSS) as well as a Hassle Scale. The Hassle Scale was specifically designed by us for this study. 

The PSS allowed us to gauge the amount of stress participants believed they were under while the Hassle Scale assessed the frequency and intensity of hassle that the participants were experiencing. In the Hassle Scale, several possible areas that were targeted included time management, social relationships, standardized tests (such as SAT) and family interactions. In other words, PSS measured the stress that participants thought they were under, while the Hassle scale measured the daily stressors they may not have realized were effecting them. We then interviewed two student-parent duos who scored high on hassle as a qualitative aspect of the study.

Who took part?

Our study group consisted of 24 students studying in 12th grade and 22 mothers from middle and upper middle class families residing across eight countries. Study boards followed by the students were IB, AP, Dual credit, CBSE and French Bac.

What did we find?

On overall PSS score, 6 students and 3 mothers scored more than 75%, 12 students and 10 mothers scored 50 – 75% and 6 students and 9 mothers scored 50 - 25 %. Looking at the overall response, 18 students and 15 mothers reported above-average vulnerability to stressful life events.

What were the most stressful aspects (PSS)?

When we looked at the specific questions, the statements eliciting higher stress among both the groups were getting angered by things and difficulty controlling irritation. Students indicated feelings of helplessness when reporting being upset often, having difficulty in controlling things, feeling nervous/ stressed, feeling unable to cope and getting stressed due to the piling workload. Mothers on the other hand reported having higher feelings of irritation due to lack of control in the situation, were affected by the stressors along with their wards but at a lesser intensity.

What this may indicate is that though both the groups are experiencing some amount of stress, the intensity of feeling vulnerable in the face of stressful situation may be felt more by the students as they are in the frontline and have more to lose. The students probably internalizing their accountability in the situation as compared to their mothers. Mothers on the other hand, though experiencing the same stressors may be more in control of the situation due to mental maturity, past experience in handling challenging situations and also because their primary role presently is as a guide allowing them to externalize accountability.

What were the most hassling aspects?

When we talk about stress, we usually talk about major life events. Daily hassles on the other hand, have been shown to have major impact on physical health and general well-being, especially when they accumulate and are not addressed in time. Though the transition to college from school is a major life changing event, we wanted to explore the minor stressors experienced everyday by the student-mother group while applying for college admissions during COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.

The questions asked to the students were their perceptions of the situations mentioned in the items. Questions asked to the mothers were with respect to their perception of how they felt about their child in the restricted lockdown situation. Few questions such as ‘I feel my parent is becoming too involved in my studies’ was rephrased as ‘I feel I am getting too involved in my child’s life’. By doing this, we hoped to get a response from both groups to the same situation.

On overall Hassles scale frequency, 7 students and mothers scored more than 75%, 11 students and 9 mothers scored between 50 – 75% and 6 students and mothers in the 50- 25%. Looking at the overall response, 13 students and 4 mothers reported above average frequency of hassles.

On overall Hassles scale intensity, 7 students and 6 mothers scored above 75%, 10 students and mothers scored between 50 – 75 % and 7 students and 6 mothers between 25-50%. Looking at the overall response, 15 students and 6 mothers reported above average frequency of hassles.

When we looked at the specific hassles among both the groups, we found that hassling thoughts like ‘I feel fearful that I am wasting my time’ or ‘my child is wasting time’; ‘I have trouble unwinding when confined to one place where I am constantly reminded of pending work’ or ‘My child has trouble finding a useful way to unwind and destress’; ‘I am fearful of not getting into my dream universities’ or ‘I am worried my child will be upset if they do not get into their dream colleges’ were some of the common concerns.

Overall, it was seen that though the responses of both the groups were almost similar with respect to the frequency of their occurrence, students were feeling the intensity of the stress more than the mothers.

It was observed that common stressors among both groups were related to general process of applying to college, getting into dream university and time management. It indicates the presence of an underlying stress related to admission process which may perhaps be independent to stress created by Covid-19.

However, most common stressors among students were related to the idea of constantly being at home and being around parents. It appeared that not being able to step out of the house due to lockdown and constantly being under parents’ vigilance was being perceived as feelings of losing autonomy and control.

Among the mothers, the most common stressors were worrying about their child’s time management ability with respect to their studies as well as managing time with friends, child’s ability to adjust on his/her own in college, child’s ability to face the disappointment if he/she did not get into their preferred colleges. It is possible that though the mothers may be finding schooling from home tiring for their children, they may look at restricted social life as an opportunity to help finetune their child’s academic schedule.

An interesting observation among mothers was seen in acknowledging that they may be interfering in their child’s life too much. This response resonates students’ feelings of being under pressure from mothers. It is possible that in their intent to help their ward, the mothers maybe unintentionally becoming the cause of some of their wards frustration.

The statement, ‘mothers will be mothers’ fits this situation perfectly. Most mothers felt that they did not have control over things in these present times. Mothers, on the other hand, also reported interfering too much in their child’s life. It is possible that mothers overinvolvement in their child’s life may be their way of coping with their anxiety that their child does not have the time management skills, is emotionally vulnerable and may not be prepared adequately for the testing times ahead. The over- involvement of mothers due to their concern and welfare of their child, could also be one of the reasons why both students and mothers had reported increased conflict in the past few months.

What did the students experiencing high stress say?

To get a better understanding on how the students were experiencing stress, we interviewed two students and their mothers who scored above 90 % in the hassle scale.

Student #1 felt that the most challenging situation was not being able to visit colleges in person because as it was a major factor in choosing the right college. Didn’t feel any direct parental pressure, but found it difficult to complete everything on time. Stated that not having to take the SAT as planned was helpful as it was difficult to sit through the entire test. Changes to the IB curriculum was seen as a positive in the current circumstance with respect to college applications as it reduced the burden. However, increased school work which let to difficulty in finding a balance with school work and college applications and not being able to visit colleges had increased uncertainty around how people deferring from schools previous year would impact the class of 2021. Wanted to cancel exams and tests, as the curriculum of the entire school schedule had been set back and it was difficult to catch up at a reasonable pace if given the power to change one thing about the present situation. Further in the conversation, student reported little involvement from the parent which was contributing to the student feeling unsupported and lost. claimed that stress did not stem from parental pressure, rather from the stress of completing an overwhelming number of tasks.

Mother #1 Stated being more anxious than experiencing fear regarding the college application process. Was helping child by mostly supporting in meeting deadlines as the elder sibling was helping with the process. Felt that the child was getting stressed because of the schoolwork, due dates and deadlines. Since there were more than one application to process, it was increasing stress as there was more to complete. Felt that if given the power to change one thing about the present situation she would make the common application easier to fill, would reduce excessive academic work and would make the process of applying more enjoyable and exciting than stressful.

Student #2 was finding it more difficult to cope with no face to face interaction with friends as there was no respite from the hard work. Felt some parental pressure with wanting to do well in school, wanting to go to a good school and stated that the need for near perfect scores left very little margin for errors. Felt that not having to take the SAT as planned has increased stress as it is a disadvantage to not complete it. Felt that there were no positives in the present circumstance with respect to college applications. Believed that there were more uncertainty which made it difficult to prioritize as one didn’t know how things would impact college application process.  Wanted the school to have lesser demand with respect to assignments if given the power to change one thing about the present situation.

Mother #2 Stated being more anxious than experiencing fear regarding the college application process and did not want the difference in opinions among family member to spoil relationships. Wanted everything to pass by without friction. Was helping child by helping out with school issues and confusion. Felt the child was more stressed compared to previous year, though schoolwork had decreased and there was a transition to the next stage of writing essays and applying. Stated that everything was under control. Expressed that she was so involved in the process that she couldn’t think of it in any different way, but if given the power to change one thing about the present situation she would make the application process more predictable, less stressful and give more guidance in navigating the process. 

In the #1 student and mother duo, it’s possible that mother’s giving responsibility to the elder sibling and not personal involvement might be perceived by the student as mother’s disinterest. Need for mother’s involvement and difficulty in organizing academic deadlines would be leading to higher stress experience.

In the second #2 student and mother duo, lapse in communication was observed. Though the mother reported involvement only to the extent of checking deadlines, the student reported parental pressure to keep grades at a near perfect level and there was constant pressure of everything directly translating onto college applications.

Overall, the overarching concern was reported to be uncertainty created by the pandemic. The application itself is already a new experience and now, with Covid-19, there is even more uncertainty as to whether one component will be weighed heavier than another. Students though appeared to react similarly to low parent involvement and high parent involvement, their reason behind their parents actions might be different. The instance with low involvement may be lending itself to the creation of stress stemming from the self and external deadlines while high involvement may be creating stress from the fear of disappointing one’s parents . It indicates, that in a situation where emotions are very raw and stakes are high, parents have a very specific role to play.

What did we learn?

This survey allowed for interesting insights into the dynamics of the stress experienced by the students who were on the threshold of a major change from high school to college and the perspective of their mothers for whom this transition is a major life event.

We saw that both students and mothers were experiencing above average generalized stress since the last one month. Having to stay under one roof without being able to go out and living on restricted resources with having to make more adjustments than one is used to had increased the baseline stress levels of this group. Simple situations like need for personal space, handling friendships online, ability to handle work life balance, ability to cope with academic pressure, ability to unwind were interpreted differently by students and their mothers and this difference in the interpretation of the situation was increasing distress and decreasing frustration tolerance.

An important aspect that came out in the study was the need to have a healthy balance between personal space, need for control and involvement in day to day functioning between students and parents. Mutual understanding, keeping communications channels open, respecting each other’s boundaries and working together as a team with a problem solving approach could go a long way in building stronger alliance and resilience for both the groups.

Ours was a small descriptive study, had a small sample size and had many limitations. However, findings of this study can help teachers and school authorities guide students and their parents in their pursuit of higher education during the Covid-19 pandemic. While planning their community and outreach programs, schools and community welfare centres could create events giving importance to helping parents navigate how they could guide their child, be involved in the application process, build resilience for themselves as well as their child and facilitate the communication channels between parents and students. 


Sanaya Varma is a grade 12 student at The American Embassy School in Delhi, India. She aspires to be a Clinical Psychologist. The present article is her work and research finding during her internship at Aaroha.