Parents face unprecedented stress during the pandemic as they care for their children while juggling paid work from home.
However, so far very few studies have focused on family well-being during a pandemic.
So we asked more than 2,000 parents to tell us in their own words about the impact of the pandemic on their families. We did this in April 2020, during Australia’s first lockdown. We published learn is the largest of its kind in Australia, and one of the few to internationally research family pandemic experiences.
Family responses follow six key themes.
1. Boredom, depression and mental health
Parents report on a spectrum of emotions. They say they and their children are stressed, trapped, and bored. New and existing mental health conditions also challenge the balance in some families. A mother of two said:
My mental health has been devastated and I am struggling to support my children.
2. Families miss the things that keep them healthy
Families skip sports, extracurricular activities, visits with family and friends, playgrounds, places of worship, trips to connect with nature, and other family support. One mother of three said:
We used to see family, friends, go to church and do children’s activities like playgroups […] Cutting all of that to stay home is tough. We miss being able to see our family and friends doing outdoor activities that are more than just strolling around the block. We are all tensed and tired.
3. Changing family relationships
Family relationships change, which we call “the intimacy trade-off.”
Strained relationships are common, including increased conflict and fighting between parents, parents and children, and between siblings.
Demands for parenting are a source of contention, demanding more from exhausted parents or creating tensions in the family due to quarrels and fights due to being “locked up”. A mother of two said:
We have too much time together. We often get offended easily with each other. My child wants more social interaction from me that I cannot provide.
For many people, there is a feeling that the goodwill between family members is “getting thinner.” In some families, however, closer bonds emerged. A father of three said:
That is good. Plenty of quality time together.
4. The unprecedented demands of parenting
The loss of important structures in society, especially schools, shows the extent to which these institutions play an important role in raising healthy families and children, with parents alone unable to provide the village proverb that children need. One mother of three said:
COVID-19 has turned me into a housewife, main teacher, speech therapist, occupational therapist, tight budget, with no social channels or help. And I do this alone with my overworked health worker husband.
5. Unbalanced load
For people with physical or mental health conditions, it is very difficult to restrict lockdowns. A father of one told us about his family’s experience of being locked up in a small room:
My wife is on a spectrum that makes being in a confined space with other people quite difficult for her – and the people around her. The limited space gave him little room to calm down, so the incidence of his anger increased.
Families living in small apartments with limited outdoor space were also particularly challenged, using words like “suffocate” and “go crazy.” Families facing economic concerns are also a needy group. A single mother of two said:
Shopping alone is now a big stress because I don’t want to expose my baby […T]The increase in food prices has meant that we can now only buy enough food for the week so that we have less to eat to ensure the children eat three meals a day. Almost every day I now miss eating so they can eat.
6. Stick to positivity
Parents told us that the pandemic provides an opportunity to cultivate “appreciation”, “tolerance and understanding” and “learn to cope and develop patience.”
Some parents say they are grateful for what they have and are relatively lucky compared to others.
Parents were also grateful for internet access, a safe space to call home, enough food to eat, time to spend together, good health, financial stability, and “enough”. A mother of two said:
I was panicked enough to start, but the kids loved being with us all the time and building relationships with each other.
Why this finding is important
Our large and diverse sample of Australian parents captures a wide range of experiences. Although more than 80% of our participants were mothers, we also heard about fathers’ experiences.
Some of these experiences may be similar to those of families around the world. However, the Australian experience may also be unique. Out of the tragic wildfire season, many families may already have the emotional and financial resources to deal with another crisis.
The unique experience of the Victorian family, which underwent a second period of longer and tougher lockout, is worthy of further investigation, as their resilience is likely pushed to the limit.
COVID-19 is not over yet, and we need to continue asking parents and individuals how they are. Studies like ours, along with studies comparing the experiences of families around the world, will also help researchers, policy makers and service providers understand how to maintain community and family support in the event of a lockdown or pandemic in the future.
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