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Surveys offer window into how families with young kids are faring through pandemic

Surveys offer window into how families with young kids are faring through pandemic

Picture of Giles Bruce
(Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
(Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

A research team at the University of Oregon has been taking a regular snapshot of how families are faring during the pandemic, documenting the emotional, social and financial hardship that children and caregivers across America have been facing the past several months.

Some of the findings have alarmed even some of the veteran child-development researchers involved.

“At the very beginning, we asked people how things have changed from pre-pandemic to pandemic. As expected, things got worse for everybody,” said Philip Fisher, a psychology professor and director of the RAPID-EC project, which stands for Rapid Assessment of Pandemic Impact on Development — Early Childhood, at the University of Oregon.

In April, according to the survey, 68% of caregivers of young children reported an increase in stress.

“But when we started following families over time,” Fisher continued, “those in traditionally, underrepresented, marginalized communities, those who are exposed to structural inequalities — Black households, mixed households, single-parent households — those households didn’t settle in the ways others did.”

While some families adapted to the “new normal” and their well-being improved, the survey found, that wasn’t true for more vulnerable groups. By May, even though overall stress among caregivers was declining, it was starting to rise again for those who were low-income, African American or had three or more children.

This survey provides yet another look at how Americans of color and those economically worse off have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.

The project started in the spring after University of Oregon researchers realized there was no high-quality data on how families with young children were doing during the pandemic. It’s well-established that early stress in childhood can have adverse impacts on development and put people at lifelong risk of acquiring chronic health conditions.

In early April, with financial backing from private philanthropists, the RAPID-EC team began surveying more than 1,000 families — nationally representative in terms of race, ethnicity and income — every week on how coronavirus has impacted their life (the survey went to biweekly in late July). The project has been releasing the results in regular posts on the website Medium.

As the pandemic wore on, families reported rising levels of “material hardship,” or the lack of ability to pay for basic needs. That share of families rose from 20% in July to 40% in August, after the extra $600-a-week in unemployment benefits from the federal CARES Act expired. That figure was 60% for Black, Latino and single-parent households in August.

“For me, the only word I can use for it is shameful,” Fisher said. “The virus — it’s arguable how much control we have over it. We have 100% control over material hardship issues.”

While President Trump provided limited economic aid under a recent executive order, Congress has thus far failed to pass another financial relief package to deal with the pandemic and may not before the election. Senate Democrats blocked a slimmed-down stimulus plan earlier this month, arguing it was inadequate.

The impacts of all this stress on young children could shape the health and development of kids for years to come.

“One of the things that happens is we can see, very clearly, fundamental changes in neurodevelopment,” Fisher said. “We can see that the circuitry of the brain is diminished. We can see that the connections among neurons — the various dendrites, the branches that stick out — are fewer and smaller in kids who have experienced this kind of hardship and adversity. These have lifelong effects on children’s ability to learn, focus their attention, think in planful ways, manage their emotions — things like that.”

And it’s just not mental and emotional development that are impacted.

“These are also effects that have been increasingly shown to affect physical health — in particular, increase the risk of diabetes and heart disease, metabolic problems and obesity, asthma and other inflammatory illnesses,” Fisher added. “We’re really talking about circumstances that will be felt across many generations and for which we’re going to be paying the price for the foreseeable future the longer we fail to act.”

“For me, the only word I can use for it is shameful. The virus — it’s arguable how much control we have over it. We have 100% control over material hardship issues.” — Philip Fisher, University of Oregon

Fisher noted that kids’ stress can be cushioned by having supportive adults in their lives, but that’s often dependent on whether those caregivers are effectively managing their own stress — a difficult notion during a global pandemic — and if they have their own emotional support system.

As people have been spending more time at home, the survey found, caregivers have been relying less on friends and co-workers for emotional support, and more on members of their own households. Ten percent of caregivers even reported turning to their own children for emotional aid.

“It’s not that parents buffer kids,” Fisher said. “It’s that kids buffer parents.”

The survey found that the vast majority of parents and caregivers are overseeing their children’s remote learning, and that families that had child care for their younger, non-school-age children are faring better.

“It’s worth nothing that a robust child care system would make a difference,” Fisher said. “So would opening schools safely.”

There have been some silver linings: While households have been experiencing more conflict during this historic moment, they have also been growing closer.

“In some ways, the ways we’ve been isolated together is not simply leading to everybody falling apart,” Fisher said. “It is strengthening our most immediate ties.”

While Fisher doesn’t see pandemic-related stress going away any time soon, he noted that extensive research has shown that, with the right kind of support and interventions, the neuroplasticity of children’s brains offers a chance of reversing some of the effects of toxic stress.

“The story’s not written yet,” he said. “We’re in the beginning chapters, and it’s ours to write.”

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