A pandemic for all ages

New research shows the impact of the global pandemic on families whose members suffer from childhood PTSD and autism.


COVID-19 has the capacity to worsen the mental health of children and their parents, says recently-published research. Justin Paget / Getty Images

It is established that the most damaging physical effects of COVID-19 are usually in elderly people. Now, evidence is demonstrating the extent to which children and adolescents suffer psychologically from the ongoing crisis. Researchers looking into the interplay of COVID-19 and significant childhood mental afflictions have revealed the difficulties faced by affected children and their families.

A study published in PLOS ONE showed that COVID-19 can create “intense psychological problems … especially in the vulnerable.” ¹ Before then, no research had investigated the emotional impact of the pandemic on Saudi children. The team led by Moustafa Hegazi, of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdulaziz University and Egypt’s Mansoura University Children’s Hospital, approached Saudi and non-Saudi families randomly via social media between March and June 2020 to carry out a survey tailored to identify post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. The screening tool was originally developed by the University of California, Los Angeles. Older adolescents can take the survey themselves or it can be administered to younger children by their caregivers.

With a total of 537 responses, as many as 71.5% of surveyed children showed at least some PTSD symptoms, and 13% ranking in the most at-risk bracket of “potential PTSD.” Many factors, such as age, gender, and school performance proved to have no impact on how likely a child was to exhibit PTSD symptoms in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic. The researchers noted that one test detected a correlation between PTSD symptoms and having a close relative working in proximity to the SARS-CoV-2 virus; however, this association was not seen in another test that evaluated multiple variables. It was observed that children of Saudi nationals had a significantly lower PTSD risk than the children of resident immigrants.

The researchers noted that studies involving infection-related PTSD tend to focus on the experiences of clinicians, with few investigations conducted on children. However, “critically developing children/adolescents are more vulnerable to psychological disturbances, owing to their less mature cognitive abilities and adaptive capacities.” As the data indicate a likelihood of PTSD prevalence amongst Saudi Arabia’s juvenile population, the researchers suggest that a link between childhood PTSD and COVID-19 “should not be overlooked.”

These findings put pressure on governmental and healthcare organizations to recognize the prevalence of PTSD in children and adolescents, and to provide preventative and ameliorative therapies.

Another study, conducted solely by King Abdulaziz University’s Youssef Althiabi, sought to discern the impact of the pandemic on vulnerable families — particularly, the impact of COVID-19 affected the parents of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).² Children with ASD often have behavioral and communication difficulties that can result in depression and anxiety in their parents. COVID-19 forced many countries, including Saudi Arabia, to adopt online learning, and the resulting disruption to the routine of a child with ASD could lead to a worsening of behavioral problems. Combined with the pandemic’s direct stressors on parents, such as work troubles, COVID-19 thus has a significant potential to exacerbate the suffering of parents of children with ASD.

To explore this, 211 mothers and fathers of children with ASD across Saudi Arabia were surveyed online for their attitudes towards parenthood, anxiety, mental health, and perceived mental health care needs. Notable conclusions were that parents’ anxiety levels were significantly worse mid-pandemic than they were before it. Althiabi suggests that this could potentially be due to the impact of raising children with ASD in the context of reduced essential services, school services, and professional support.

This study showed that during the pandemic, parents of children with ASD found solace in consulting with teachers, family members, and therapists in order to maintain their mental health. In particular, the data show that young mothers were especially negatively affected by the impact of COVID-19. When parents were asked what support they most needed, psychological and financial support were in the most demand.  Remote training, online counseling and advice on how to deal with adverse child behavior were also requested.

While there are activities that parents can use to more effectively manage children with ASD, Althiabi’s study reveals the importance of accessible support for children with ASD and their parents, especially in the context of a global crisis.

Accumulating data show that recovery from COVID-19 requires a holistic approach and proactive, accessible support for afflicted families.


  1.  |Sayed, M. H., Hegazi, M. A., El-Baz, M. S., Alahmadi, T. S., Zubairi, N. A. et al. COVID-19 related posttraumatic stress disorder in children and adolescents in Saudi Arabia. PLOS ONE16, e0255440 (2021). article
  2.  | Althiabi, Y. Attitude, anxiety and perceived mental health care needs among parents of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in Saudi Arabia during COVID-19 pandemic. Research in Developmental Disabilities 111, 103873 (2021). article 

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