The coronavirus pandemic represents the biggest shock to the world economies since the great depression. COVID- 19 is/ was a seismic social shock even for families that lost no income due at least in part to abrupt school closures and the widespread threat of illness and death. In many instances, the school closures substantially increased the time that parents, especially mothers, spend with their children. For school children, school closures and learning interruptions could threaten children’s learning and adjustment but the effects will depend on the quantity and quality of parent-child interaction at home. Low-income children may be at greater risk for learning losses and behavioural stress than high-income children given average pre-pandemic differences in parent engagement in children’s learning.
The novel coronavirus has been more prevalent among low income families resulting in much more anxiety in these families about threats to their health and well-being. The changes arising from the novel coronavirus can also have a direct effect on the level of distress parents and children experience arising from social isolation due to stay at home orders, including physical and social distance from their friends and schools and changes to their usual daily routines. Parental and child well-being may be diminished by concerns about their own and their family’s health as a consequence of exposure to the virus itself.
The COVID-19 crisis will not affect all families equally, but may cause particular harm to children of low-income and less-educated parents who tend to have lower academic and socio- emotional skills compared to higher income or more educated parents already and for preschool age children who are especially sensitive to developmental inputs that shape lifelong attainment and achievement.
The economic and social shifts arising from COVID-19 represent key forces capable of shaping the future life courses of children. The associations between parental economic stress, parent mental health and behaviour and children’s socio-emotional adjustment in the short and long term are well documented. Existing research on the relationship between the COVID-19 pandemic and family life has largely focused on its economic and mental health impacts. The COVID-19 pandemic and the policy response to it – including stay-at-home orders, new regulations for essential workers, and school closures – may create a stressful environment for families through many channels: worries about health; pressures related to going to work, working from home or the potential of job loss and consequently income loss; the need to home- school children and other possible consequences of living through this pandemic. These stresses could diminish the quality of parent-child interactions, which may in turn amplify socio-emotional or behavioural problems in children.
On the other hand, the effects of the pandemic need not be uniformly negative. One unique feature of the economic policy response was the federal stimulus funds targeting lower income households and delivered to families in the late spring. Unemployment insurance was expanded in unprecedented ways during the current COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, large numbers of families experiencing job losses actually enjoyed higher incomes during their period of unemployment as compared to the pre-pandemic time during which they were employed. Thus, for some families, this period was tantamount to a paid family leave. The rapid and generous early federal response to supporting the unemployed are a unique feature of the COVID-19 pandemic, distinguishing it from prior periods of high job loss such as the Great Recession of 2008.
Parent time especially mothers’ time in childcare has increased in the wake of school closings and stay at home orders. The effects of an increase in time with children are uncertain. On one hand, caring for young children while isolated at home and potentially also juggling employment may be stressful for at least some mothers. However, it shows that the time that parents spend in child care provides the most feelings of positive affect and meaning compared to the time that parents spend engaged in any other activity and that this is especially true for low-income parents. On research, it is find that on average mothers who have greatly increased the time they spend caring for their children during the pandemic have disproportionately experienced substantial increases in stress, anxiety and frustrations with their children. However, this was true primarily for mothers who held themselves to a high standard of “intensive parenting.”
The drivers of family and children’s adjustment in economically vulnerable families during the novel coronavirus pandemic are not yet fully understood. The family research which is focus on as outcomes capture. The three types of interactions between parents and children known to be central in the development of young children’s socio-emotional adjustment and anticipated to play a role in amplifying or mitigating the response to the novel coronavirus. These characteristics include parental mental health and stress, parents’ time investments in children’s development and the quality of parent-child interactions. We also examine parents’ reports of children’s behavioural adjustment.
Parental mental health problems, such as loneliness, hopelessness, depressive symptoms, and parenting stress are risk factors for a more stressful home environment. Unfortunately, low-income parents in the globe are already at risk for higher levels of mental health problems even absent the pandemic. To the extent that the stresses of the COVID-19 crisis worsen parental mental health and increase stress this may increase children’s behavioural and socio-emotional problems.
The time that parents spend with their children on developmentally stimulating or educational activities are important determinants of childhood development. Changes in parental employment induced by the COVID-19 pandemic may have increased the time that parents have available to be with their children but may also have changed the organization and patterns of family life, including how parents spend their time at home and with their children. Consequently, we do not know whether the changes in time distribution helped or hindered child development. The children in economically disadvantaged households receive less time investment even absent the pandemic. It is possible that unemployed parents might increase time caring for children or other types of home production in response to reduced work in the marketplace. However, parents may spend less time in home production or with their children during the pandemic, perhaps because they do not know how to productively invest the time they do have in their children or because they or a family member is sick.
Researchers have considered parenting style – such as how warm, strict, or communicative a parent is – as an important determinant of a child’s skills. During a period when schools are closed, parents may have more opportunities to spend time with children and this may produce more positive parent-child interactions. However, the disruptions caused by changes in routines and economic changes or the threat of illness may produce more negative interactions. Harsh parenting – including shouting at young children may exacerbate children’s behavioural and emotional problems. Even absent the pandemic, children in low-income homes experience harsh parenting more often than do children in higher-income homes.
On further study of families with preschool age children; early childhood is hypothesized to be a particularly sensitive period for exposure to economic and social stress. Both human and animal studies highlight the critical importance of early childhood for brain development and for establishing the neural functions and structures that will shape future cognitive, social, emotional and health outcomes. Research in other fields also highlights the developmental sensitivity of the early childhood period. Researcher propose an economic model of development in which preschool cognitive and socio-emotional capacities are key ingredients for human capital acquisition during the school years. In their model, early capacities can affect the likelihood that later school- age human capital investments will be successful and productive. This model predicts that economic deprivation, such as that which may arise from job or income losses, in early childhood creates disparities in school readiness and early academic success that widen over the course of childhood. Researcher presented evidence showing the developmental sensitivity of the early childhood period to the effects of low income on later life outcomes.
While we hope the pandemic will come to a close soon, the results of the crisis of COVID -19 on families can help us to analyse and understand the broader impact of economic and social shocks on families. The insights that can help policy makers and practitioners support low income families who are struggling with these shocks now and in the future. First, the data show high levels of job loss, income declines, and perceived inability to make ends meet. Overall 45% of our sample experienced either a job loss or a substantial household income loss due to the pandemic. But it is the combination of job and income loss that seems to create stress and hurt child development. While this pandemic will one day come to a close, job loss will be with us forever and these results suggest that government efforts to stem the income loss associated with job loss could greatly contribute to family stability and child success. Moreover, the economic stresses of the COVID-19 crisis have worsened mothers’ mental health and stress, diminished their sense of hope for the future and substantially increased the amount that parents yell and lose their temper with their young children. This calls for interventions aimed at supporting mothers’ mental health.
Nonetheless, adverse effects are never apparent among the families in our sample who report a pandemic-induced job loss but not a concomitant household income loss. We do not know how these families avoided a household income loss but there are several possibilities. Unemployment compensation plus federal stimulus money to families may have prevented income loss. Other household members may have experienced an income gain from working more hours, for example as essential workers. Moreover, the group of families who lost their jobs but maintained their income sometimes reports better family interactions – they report more positive interactions with their child and they report that their child more often enjoys the time with them. This highlights the importance of time to parenting. For parents having both income and time to spend with their children is important. If they can have more time with no loss income, their interactions will improve. This may suggest generous paid family leave is a promising way to improve child outcomes.
Although parents experiencing job and income losses and those reporting an inability to make ends meet are much more likely to report diminished mental health, they are no more likely to report being overwhelmed by their responsibilities as parents nor do these experiences detract from the quality of the parent-child interactions. An exception is the degree to which parents report yelling at their child which is strongly correlated with job and income loss alone, and struggling to make ends meet. Parents’ reports of their own economic stress are also not correlated with their reports of their children’s behavioural adjustment. This suggests that many parents in our sample were able to shield their children to some extent from their own personal stress arising from household economic struggles. It will be important for future research to understand how long parents are able to remain resilient in this way and the factors that shape the ability to do so. It is certainly possible that if economic hardship wears on its ill effects could spill over into parent-child interactions.
Parents’ exposure to COVID-19 itself is associated with substantially lower levels of positive parent-child interaction and substantially higher levels of parents’ reports of children’s behavioural non-compliance. There is also a strong suggestion in the data that exposure to COVID-19 is associated with higher levels of parental life stress and a diminished sense of hope. In fact, exposure to COVID was the only one of our predictor variables that was correlated with children’s behavioural adjustment. We do not know of other studies that have established this finding but it is certainly worrisome to the extent that cases continue to rise in various locations around the world.
We identify one dimension of low income families’ pandemic experience that seems consistently positive – an increase in the amount of time that parents are spending with their pre-school age children in the wake of school closings. It is reported that seventy-five per cent of the parents were spending much more pandemic-induced time caring for their young children. Although this experience was modestly stressful on average for parents. it was also a significant positive predictor of the parents’ perception that the child enjoyed the time with the parent and the parents’ report of more positive interactions with the child. These results are consistent with prior work showing that the time parents spend with their children is characterized by very high levels of positive affect and meaning.
In sum, these results make clear that the complete story of economic and social shocks on family and children’s adjustment remains to be told. COVID-19 will eventually end, but the economic and social forces shaping family life will remain with us and may take new shapes in the future. Understanding these phenomena and crafting the appropriate policy response to mitigating these shocks on parents and children should be a top priority for scholars and policy makers alike.
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