The negative impact of the Pandemic on children and families is quite apparent. Not only is there an emerging body of research documenting the negative impact of the Pandemic (1,2,3), but there is an established body of research that has examined the impact of major disasters, social upheavals, and major social disruptions that has clearly shown that these events negatively impact children and families (4).
Fortunately, there is clear evidence that certain factors/characteristics help mitigate the negative effects of major social disruptions and upheavals (5). In addition this research indicates that even in the face of major life disruptions people are able to strengthen family connections and enhance their sense of competency (5).
While it may appear obvious that the welfare of children is highly contingent on the welfare of their families/caregivers exploring this further offers insight into how mental health professionals and others working with children and their families can help support and strengthen families. Specifically, Froma Walsh (6) suggests that 3 factors are key in helping families cope with and master adversity: good communication, strong organization, and positive belief systems. By focusing on these areas we can assist families to more effectively cope with the negative impacts of the Pandemic. Parents can be assisted in establishing, reinstating and maintaining routines. Parents can be supported in coping with their own heightened levels of stress so that they do not overwhelm their children with their own anxieties and concerns. Parents can be assisted in finding ways to lessen their own anxiety/distress and supported in helping their children maintain a realistic sense of optimism and hope, which are critical for coping with negative events. These are only a few of the areas of intervention that professionals can focus on to help children cope with the Pandemic.
A few brief case examples:
12 year old Fredrick told this psychologist that he was “living the dream” during the summer months of the Pandemic as he was able to stay home all day, sleep until noon, and spend all his time playing video games. Both his parents were struggling to manage their jobs and were focused on trying to cope with working from home. Therapy focused on helping parents, in a realistic fashion, begin to institute great structure and routine (regular bedtimes, limited hours for screen time) while also working on helping a less involved father take a more active role in parenting.
14 year old Ernie was extremely anxious about the Pandemic, worrying excessively about the welfare of his family. Not surprisingly his exposure to social media was extremely high. Moreover, his caretakers (immediate family) were also extremely anxious about the Pandemic with his father, a teacher, fearing for his health when he returned to work in the fall. Therapy focused on decreasing family members anxiety about the Pandemic by helping family members more openly discuss and address their concerns, thus strengthening communication in the family as well. The therapist worked with both father and son on maintaining a realistic sense of hope and on avoiding catastrophizing. Finally, parents were supported in providing more structure, limiting screen time, which appeared to be negatively impacting Ernie.
While these are only a few of the types of interventions we employ it is critical to keep in mind that a focus on strengthening and enhancing communication, emotional connection, adaptive coping, and a sense of hope, are essential.
In closing, we would like to highlight the obvious: what negatively affects parents and caretakers will very likely negatively affect their children. When working with anxious, depressed, acting out and/or stressed children we cannot neglect the family. Research has consistently shown the family involvement and efforts to strengthen family functioning (4) lead to improved outcomes for children. Family change is often the key to helping children.
Citations and sources
Prime, H., Wade, M., and Browne, D.T., (2020). Risk and Resilience in Family Well-Being During the Covid-19 Pandemic. American Psychologist, Vol. 75, Number 5. Pp. 631.
Calhoun, L.G., & Tedeschi, R.G. (Eds.). (2014). Handbook of posttraumatic growth: Research and practice.
Walsh, F. (2015). Strengthening family resilience. New York, NY: Guildford Press.