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The Pandemic Domino Effect of Parents’ Stress on Young Children

September 9, 2020

It’s been heavily reported how the health and economic crises of the pandemic have caused considerable stress and anxiety for so many parents this year. The strain of keeping kids and families safe and healthy, maintaining a job and economic stability and fending off housing and food insecurity have stretched many parents’ resolve, especially since the pandemic is expected to continue in the months ahead. With so many factors impacting families, early-childhood researchers and advocates have rightly raised concerns of how the persistent stressors are affecting young children during a critical phase in their development.

The University of Oregon has been tracking the state of family well-being and the domino effect of their children’s development and mental health through its Rapid Assessment of Pandemic Impact on Development Early Childhood Household Survey Project (RAPID-EC Project) survey. Since April, researchers have been conducting a weekly, nationally representative survey of families with young children to better understand how child and adult emotional well-being are influenced by financial and work circumstances, availability of healthcare, race/ethnicity and access to child care/early-childhood education during the pandemic.

According to their analysis, caregivers in lower-income households report higher levels of depression and anxiety. Results week-after-week reveal a chain reaction: When a family is struggling to meet basic needs, such as paying for food or housing, they report more emotional distress the following week. This in turn increases their child’s emotional distress the week after that, even among the youngest children, including infants and toddlers, who may not understand why their parents are stressed.

In addition to income instability and basic needs as indicators of stress, evidence also suggests that structural inequalities due to racism play a role in determining financial and material hardship of a given family. RAPID-EC found that regardless of income, Black and Latinx families experience greater material hardship than white families in the same income bracket. In other words, the data suggest that even Black and Latinx households in the middle to upper income levels are experiencing disproportionately high levels of difficulty to meet basic needs for food, housing, child care and health care. Because white families with the same income levels are not reporting the same hardships, they are not a result of income level. Instead, these differences are a function of structural inequality.

Caregivers’ mental health plays an important role in how young children manage stress and handle trauma. Many children are experiencing toxic stress, which can occur when a child experiences strong and/or prolonged adversity without adequate adult support. This particular activation of the stress response systems can disrupt brain and organ development, and increases the risk for stress-related disease and cognitive impairment, well into the adult years. For children this oftentimes means difficulty in developing resilience, problem-solving skills and empathy, all of which can have long-term impacts on their education, work and life outcomes.

RAPID-EC findings illustrate another crisis on the horizon if action isn’t taken. Health advocates and policymakers need to act immediately to provide additional support to these families and caregivers.

By hearing from families directly and applying expert knowledge on early-childhood development, the RAPID-EC team has not only pinpointed nationwide trends in parent and child well-being, but also explained how these large-scale trends occur within various contexts. More importantly, this evidence-based approach allows policymakers to consider the impacts of their actions on a larger scale.

TAGS: Education