back to news Jan. 13, 2021

Survey attempts to quantify added stresses on family life during COVID-19 lockdowns

Since the spring, families have all been getting a little closer.

When COVID-19 cases grew in March, businesses shuttered, children stayed home from school and adults’ access to their workplace was restricted. Those factors added up to increased financial, mental and emotional strain on caregivers across Ohio.

Kammi Schmeer, an associate professor of sociology, was part of a team that aimed to quantify that added stress during Ohio’s initial shutdown. Working with the Crane Center for Early Childhood Research and Policy — part of Ohio State’s College of Education and Human Ecology — Schmeer worked with Crane Center Director Laura Justice and other center researchers to quickly develop and implement a survey that took a snapshot of caregiver stress and child development among families participating in existing Crane Center studies in Ohio.

The Crane Center COVID and Families Study (CCCFS), conducted among Columbus, Cleveland and Dayton caregivers with children under age 9 in May 2020, toward the tail end of the first stay-at-home order, found that 52% of families reported mild to severe anxiety and 38% reported experiencing depression.

“Social and economic disruption was substantial in these families, as was caregiver mental distress,” Schmeer said. “We have initial evidence that this disruption was experienced across the socioeconomic spectrum, with potential adverse consequences for parent and child well-being in the short term.”

The CCCFS came about suddenly when the research team realized it needed to pivot to capture this important moment in time. When the pandemic hit, Schmeer was already partnering with the Crane Center on a five-year, National Institutes of Health-funded project called SMALL Talk. That project is studying language development in low-income children from infancy to age 4, hoping to identify risk factors that delay language learning in those vulnerable populations.

The CCCFS surveys, which were done over email, utilized the already existing relationships between the Crane Center and families from three Crane Center projects to obtain a sample of more than 550 caregivers with young children.

“We were able to capture a socially and economically diverse sample of Ohio families, and I think that’s because the Crane Center was already involved with these caregivers,” Schmeer said.

When the surveys came in, they painted a picture of home lives with many added stresses. Nearly 70% of caregivers reported feeling “stuck at home,” and more than 30% reported children losing contact with friends and family. Almost 30% of caregivers reported an increase in conflict at home, and more than 40% reported a decline in income and worry about finding money for food.

But there were some positives also. Participants reported they heard or saw more acts of kindness since the onset of the stay-at-home order at a rate of 65%. More than half said they spent more time outside and more time walking or biking.

“We expected and found substantial economic distress, chaos and increased conflict in households, along with reports of social isolation and decreased activities among caregivers and their children,” Schmeer said. “We also identified some positive experiences during this time, related to spending time with family members and increasing outdoor activities.”

The first round of the survey finished in the late spring, but Schmeer and Justice received a supplemental grant from NIH to continue their COVID surveys among SMALL Talk families over the next year. These families have now participated in two surveys and will receive a third survey in the coming month.

Schmeer hopes that whatever the results show, the survey can demonstrate to policymakers that real changes are needed to help keep families with young children afloat.

Besides a need for more financial support to balance the rising costs of food and utilities that are attributed to increased time at home, low-income families need other types of crucial support during the pandemic. Some necessities include better access to the internet to stay connected to schools, families and communities; better health insurance to maintain wellness and development; and help with childcare.

“The pandemic highlights the need for policies and programs to support families across a number of dimensions,” Schmeer said. “Money is great — that will help. But this is a whole different ballgame, especially if children remain online for school instead of in school institutions. We have to figure out a way to help caregivers support multiple aspects of their children’s well-being, as well as their own.”