Early Childhood: Pandemic stress and the impact on kids

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Jackie Mader

By Jackie Mader

It’s well-known that women have been especially impacted by pandemic-related economic upheaval. But new data show how widespread the job loss and emotional strain have been for mothers of young children in particular. One-third of moms with children birth through age 5 have had to stop working or reduce their hours during the pandemic, according to a new report based on surveys of 1,000 caregivers and released by the Rapid Assessment of Pandemic Impact on Development- Early Childhood, or RAPID-EC, a national bi-weekly survey of households with children ages five and under. (That’s actually slightly lower than the percentage of mothers with school-age children who were not working as of January 2021, according to the United States Census Bureau.)

Yet these employment changes have hit moms of young children hard, the RAPID-EC survey data found. The mothers who lost employment experienced higher levels of emotional distress—including anxiety, depression, stress and loneliness—than moms who did not stop or reduce their working hours. 

One reason for the increase in emotional distress, researchers found, could be that 82 percent of women who stopped working said they could not afford to be out of work; meanwhile, 68 percent of women with reduced hours said they could not afford that shift. Black and Latinx women were more likely than white women to struggle financially after losing work. But even women who could afford the loss of income reported higher levels of emotional distress than those whose work remained constant. “These data do not clarify the reasons why mothers who stop/reduce [work] experience distress,” wrote the authors of the report. “But these reasons might include issues such as loss of opportunities for occupational advancement, decreased income, or loss of childcare.”

Parental stress has been an increasing concern as research has found that the emotional well-being of caregivers can impact young children during a formative time of brain development, something RAPID-EC researchers call “a hardship chain reaction.” “What we find is that when adults report their level of distress is high, subsequently we see that children have higher levels of emotional distress,” said Phil Fisher, who leads the RAPID-EC project. That means children may be fussy, anxious, fearful or worry more, he added. Caregivers may be less responsive, and less able to serve as a “buffer” for children during difficult times.

Some experts say that’s why more support is needed for parents. Research has found that emotional distress from job loss does not necessarily impact a parent’s capacity to be a responsive caregiver, particularly if the government steps in with financial assistance to help make up the gap. A study released last year from researchers at the University of Chicago found that a parent’s ability to nurture and care for their children is not severely impacted during stresses including job loss as long as they have a means of supporting their families, such as through unemployment insurance. RAPID-EC found that stimulus payments and unemployment relief provided during the pandemic were critical for families with young children: more than 61 percent of households surveyed used stimulus payments for basic needs, and 72 percent of families utilized unemployment benefits.

More on mothers and mental health during the pandemic

This article by Claire Cain Miller for The New York Times looks at what supports are needed to better support working mothers.

This radio piece by Kai Ryssdal, Daisy Palacios and Andie Corban for Marketplace delves into the personal stories of two mothers during the pandemic.

This story by Rachel Feintzeig and Lauren Weber for The Wall Street Journal looks at the tough road ahead of working mothers impacted by the pandemic.

 Research quick take

The 2021 Child Care for Working Families Act would provide free or reduced-cost child care for 76 percent of working families with children under the age of 6, according to a new analysis by the Center for American Progress. The Act would also address current aspects of child care subsidies that advocates have long argued are problematic by requiring that every child who receives child care assistance from their state remain eligible for child care assistance for no less than 12 months, even if a parent changes employment or income. You can read the full analysis here.

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