As family well-being declines, so does children’s behavior

Claire McCarthy, MD

Senior Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

The COVID-19 pandemic is bad not only for our physical health, but our mental health as well. It has killed thousands of people and disrupted our lives in terrible ways. So it’s not surprising that a recent survey finds that parents in the US are having a hard time.

Researchers did a national survey in June of 2020 of more than 1,000 parents with children under the age of 18, asking questions about mental health, insurance coverage, food security, child care, and use of health care. They found that compared to before March of 2020,

  • 27% reported worsening mental health for themselves
  • 17% reported worsening behavioral health for their children
  • Moderate to severe food insecurity rose by a third, going from 6% to 8%
  • Employee-sponsored health care went down only slightly, from 63% to 60%
  • 24% reported loss of child care; however, among families with children 5 or younger, it was closer to 50%. Among those who lost childcare, the majority (74%) reported that a parent was watching the child instead. Obviously, this has implications for that parent’s ability to work.
  • 40% reported cancellations or delays in their child’s health care, most commonly well-child care but also specialty and behavioral health care.

Connections to mental and behavioral health

One in 10 families reported worsening mental health for themselves as well as worsening behavioral health for their children. Among those who reported that both were happening, 48% reported loss of regular child care, 16% reported a change in health insurance status, and 11% had worsening food security. Clearly, these families have been hard-hit by the economic effects of the pandemic.

Interestingly, rates of mental health problems were similar across parents of different races and incomes. However, two groups of parents had worse declines in their mental health: female and unmarried parents; and families with younger children.

This survey was done before parents had to manage the implications of a new school year, which is going to bring new stress, especially as it appears that many if not most school systems will be providing at least some of their instruction remotely. Parents again are going to have to juggle working with not just caring for their child, but being sure that they are doing — and understanding — their remote schoolwork. For many families, this is essentially impossible.

It’s also important to remember that compared to families without children, families with children are more likely to be poor — and with job losses continuing and a predicted epidemic of evictions, poor families are going to have even bigger difficulties with basic needs such as food and housing.

The implications of this are staggering. It’s not just short-term homelessness and hunger we have to worry about — it’s the long-term educational, psychological, and health effects on children. This pandemic could quite literally change the course of millions of lives for the worse.

Responding to growing needs

So what can we do? Clearly, as a country we need to devote real financial resources to helping families with children, especially single-parent families and families with young children. That’s the biggest and most immediate need, and will require action from not just government but every possible source of funding.

We also need to devote resources to mental health support, making sure that anyone who needs it can get it. This won’t be cheap either, but the cost will be higher in so many ways if we don’t.

We need to find ways to look out for each other. At this moment when we need to be physically distant to prevent spread of the virus, we also need to be connected. We need to find safe ways to check in with members of our communities. That might be regular phone calls or socially distant check-ins with at-risk families, contributing to food pantries and clothing drives, volunteering to do online tutoring, donating to organizations that are helping families, and anything else that can make a difference.

Part of looking out for each other is doing everything we can to stop the spread of the virus. Along with lots of hand washing, that means that everyone over the age of 2 should wear a mask when they can’t physically distance — and that we must take physical distancing truly seriously. If we let our guard — or our mask — down, we will prolong the pandemic, with everything that means.

We need each other, more than ever.

Follow me on Twitter @drClaire

Related Information: Anxiety and Stress Disorders

Commenting has been closed for this post.