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The Impact of COVID-19 on the Family Dynamic


The COVID-19 pandemic has affected people physically, emotionally, and financially. New research shows it also has had a detrimental impact on the family unit.

A study from Penn State shows a heavy impact on family well-being during the first few months of the pandemic. Researchers used data from 129 families they began gathering years ago, allowing them to compare well-being before and after the pandemic. The researchers found:

  • Levels of depression in parents that were twice as high as they were pre-pandemic
  • Lower quality co-parenting in parents
  • Double the rates of depression, anxiety, and other internalizing behaviors in children
  • Levels of aggression and other externalizing behaviors in kids that were four times the rate before COVID-19

The magnitude of the impact on mental health shocked researchers.

“We saw not just overall shifts, but greater numbers of parents and children who were in the clinical range for depression and behavior problems, which means they were likely struggling with a diagnosable disorder and would benefit from treatment,” said Mark Feinberg, research professor of health and human development at Penn State.

These findings are echoed in other research. In a study of Canadian families with children living at home, 44 percent of parents reported worse mental health due to the pandemic. The most common issues were alcohol use, suicidal thoughts, and stress about domestic violence. Fewer parents (35%) without children living at home experienced similar problems.

Protective Factors That Help Families Cope

The pandemic hasn’t been easy on families, but many report positive effects as well.
About one-third of families say the crisis brought them closer together. Research shows there are a few important steps that can help parents stay positive in their approach to parenting during a crisis:

Focus on the Co-parenting Relationship

Families have been under extreme stress. Previous studies have shown that stress typically heightens conflict in family relationships, sometimes leading to harsh or abusive parenting.

Parents can bolster their ability to help themselves and their kids by working on their relationship with their spouse or partner, say researchers. Being able to cooperate with, respect, and support one another helps build resilience in the whole family.

Stress Management Strategies

School closures, job loss or reductions in hours, and changing child care needs contributed to high levels of stress during the pandemic. Women and families with school-age children have been among the most stressed.

Self-care gives people resources to manage stress effectively. Studies show parents are more likely to see experiences like helping their children with school as positive if they have healthy ways to manage their own stress. Exercise, meditation, making time for hobbies, and talking with friends are excellent stress management strategies.

Getting Help

Both parents and children are struggling with mental health issues due to COVID-19. At the height of the pandemic, many people reported difficulty accessing mental health care. Nearly half of moms who needed mental health care did not get it. The biggest barriers were finding a mental health provider, paying for care, and finding time for treatment.

Now that the crisis is beginning to stabilize, it’s time to reach out for help if you see signs of a mental health issue in yourself or your loved ones. Treatment can help build essential coping and communication skills, strengthening individual family members as well as the entire family unit.

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