The Well-being of Parents and Children During the COVID-19 Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has swept the globe in 2020, hitting the United States especially hard beginning in March. Seemingly overnight, massive shutdowns were implemented, upending family schedules as schools, daycare centers, workplaces, and recreational facilities closed one after another. The pandemic is still going strong in many areas, but what has it done to families with children? In June 2020, a team of researchers set out to answer this question.

The Study

A national survey, published by Pediatrics,  polled parents with children under the age of 18. The study focused on differences in their family’s lives between March 2020, right before the shutdown, and June 2020, just as many locations began to open up. Topics addressed included physical and mental health, insurance status and the use of healthcare services, food insecurity, and the use of childcare services.

The Results

The team found that nearly 27% of parents experienced a decline in their own mental health, and more than 14% noticed a decline in the behavioral health of their children. Nearly one in 10 reported both. Single mothers and families with younger children were particularly at risk for declining mental health.

More than 17% of parents experienced worsening of their own physical health, and nearly 4% reported similar results in their children. These numbers were similar across demographics.

Though there were no substantial changes in the percentage of families who were uninsured, the level of employer-sponsored insurance went down, while the level of public or private insurance went up. Additionally, more than a third of parents reported delays in obtaining healthcare services for their children.

Food insecurity also increased, as did the use of food pantries and other emergency food resources, such as meals provided by schools and pandemic-related electronic food benefits. However, there was no notable rise in the percentage of families enrolled in long-term food benefit programs such as WIC or SNAP.

Almost 25% of families lost access to regular childcare. As would be expected, the numbers were higher for families with young children than for those with teenagers, who can largely care for themselves. Still, teens are social by nature, and the impacts of this disruption in socialization should not be overlooked.

Demographic Effects

Interestingly, household income was not much of a factor in worsening mental or behavioral health. In fact, families with incomes over $100,000 reported the second highest level of parental mental health issues, while those with incomes under $25,000 reported the lowest level. Single parents reported more issues than married parents, and those with younger children fared worse than those with older children.

Worsening mental and behavioral health were heavily correlated with loss of childcare and, to a lesser extent, increased food insecurity. And those who reported declining mental health in themselves, their children, or both were more likely to delay their children’s healthcare visits.

Key Takeaways

It’s no surprise that the sudden upheaval caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on many people of all ages. The highest unemployment levels since the Great Depression, rising food insecurity, and loss of employer-sponsored health insurance have all caused anxiety, depression, and other negative mental health effects in both parents and children.

Yet loss of childcare is the factor that seems to have the biggest impact on how families are coping. With physical distancing the new norm, and older adults at higher risk for severe effects from the virus, few parents are turning to grandparents or others to care for their children. Roughly 75% of parents are simply caring for their children themselves. Many of these parents are also working from home, and with schools closed, find themselves suddenly responsible for their child’s education.

The loss of childcare also means the loss of socialization for children and the loss of alone time for parents. Both groups have lost their daily routines and schedules, and their options for coping. Families had to learn to share resources such as computers, and to spend all day, every day alone together.

Tips for Families

Every family is different, however, following these tips with some minor tweaks can help everyone in your home cope as well as possible:

  • Remember it’s temporary: Though it may feel like the pandemic has dragged on forever, it will eventually come to an end through a combination of treatments and vaccines. Work together to plan a vacation or other special event to take place after the pandemic ends.
  • Maintain schedules: There’s no need for your night owl teenager to get up early, but the entire family should set and keep schedules that work for everyone. Maintain the same bedtimes and waking times every day, and schedule constructive activities for at least part of most days.
  • Stay active: Everyone in the family should get some exercise every day. Physical activity helps to combat anxiety and depression, and being outside in the sunshine is good for both mental and physical health. Just remember to stay physically distanced from people who don’t live in your household.
  • Remain connected: Some experts have started using the words “physical distancing” rather than “social distancing,” because social connection is just as important as ever. From video chats with grandparents to binge watching shows while texting a friend, find creative ways for everyone to stay connected with those they love.
  • Acknowledge the struggle: It’s important to express feelings rather than suppress them. Make sure your kids know that it’s okay to feel scared or sad or angry. Check in with each other periodically to discuss your feelings.

We haven’t seen a pandemic of this magnitude in more than 100 years, and no one was prepared for the sudden disruption to their lives. For families, loss of childcare appears to be the single biggest factor affecting mental and behavioral health, but other factors such as food insecurity and unemployment can also play a role. To minimize the impacts, acknowledge the struggle, make plans for after the pandemic, and take steps to help your family remain as engaged and active as possible.

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