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'Family Snapshots' survey shows stress, positive experiences shaped pandemic year

04/20/2021


While families reported disruptions and added stress, many also noted positive experiences that help build resilience in a survey conducted by the American Academy of Pediatrics and partnering organizations

Families experienced enormous life-altering changes during the COVID-19 pandemic, with disruptions in daily routines, children’s schooling, finances, and personal relationships. The stress has taken a toll on many, and yet a recent survey shows that families also reported positive experiences as they found ways to adapt and strengthen bonds with children.

The potential for brain-building resilience amid catastrophe is among the findings of a “family snapshots” survey conducted by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), in collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Prevent Child Abuse America (PCA America), and Tufts Medical Center. The project team surveyed 3,000 parents and caregivers of children under the age of 18 in November 2020, as part of a broader 7-month project to measure impact of the pandemic on family life, adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), and positive childhood experiences. The survey findings are here: Family Snapshots: Life During the Pandemic (aap.org)
 
“Learning more about the pandemic’s effect on families helps us find better ways to support families, through our work with pediatricians, home visitors and caregivers,” said AAP President Lee Savio Beers, MD, FAAP. “Eight out of every ten families told us that their children’s lives were upended during this pandemic, with many carving out space in dining rooms and bedrooms for remote learning as parents juggled their own work. At the same time, most parents set out to create safe and loving homes for their children – which led to closer positive relationships.”

The survey was the first of three that will be conducted in waves, with a total 9,000 families to participate.  For the initial survey, parents and caregivers were asked about their experiences since March 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic lockdown began in most U.S. states. A snapshot of American families emerged as parents and caregivers answered questions about their household finances, employment changes, disruptions to education or family services, factors that have caused stress, and positive and stress-relieving experiences. 

When asked to describe how the pandemic affected their financial status, 40% of all surveyed reported that their family finances had been negatively impacted, mostly due to changes in employment status. More women were more likely to reduce their work hours to stay home with children, during the pandemic. A total of 47% of all parents who had been employed full- or part-time prior to the pandemic experienced some change in their employment. This included those who were laid off or furloughed, those whose working hours were reduced by an employer, and employee-initiated reductions in working hours to provide care for a family member. 

“Families are our greatest asset in ensuring the safe, stable and nurturing relationships and environments that enable children to thrive and succeed,” said Dr. Melissa Merrick, president & CEO of PCA America. “Tangibly understanding the needs of parents and caregivers—listening and learning from their lived experiences—fosters the development and delivery of supports that address their specific circumstances and create the conditions and contexts for positive childhood experiences to take root. The family snapshots survey is an integral part of fortifying families and positioning them to emerge stronger, more resilient and hopeful from the global pandemic.”

Some key findings:

  • Family life has been disrupted as a result of parents losing their jobs. In this survey, 1 in 11 employed men and 1 in 6 employed women reduced their work hours to provide care for family. These employee-initiated changes occurred most for families in which the youngest child at home was in the 5- to 9-year age group.
  • Resource support addressing income, housing and food insecurity might have helped buffer the negative impacts on families. Pediatricians, home visitors, and other agencies that work with children and families have realized the importance of screening for these social determinants of health. Agencies and individuals who conduct these screenings should be prepared to provide information or resources for concrete supports. 
  • Educational disruption has resulted in increased tension at home in many families. Despite this stress, 60% of families reported they have grown closer.
  • Adults who take care of their own life stress in healthy ways have more positive experiences helping their children with school.
  • Those who work with children and families should listen carefully to elicit parents’ own experiences of stress and/or increased family closeness and help parents create more positive experiences. 

The survey found that while families reported stress during the pandemic, most stressed families also reported positive experiences, and nearly half of those who reported positive experiences also reported stress. Positive childhood experiences can protect against toxic stress. Toxic stress can be a biological result of negative experiences and can contribute to poor health outcomes. 

“The closeness between parents and their children, even under stress, reflects remarkable adaptation and healing,” said Robert Sege, MD, PhD, Pediatrician at Tufts Children’s Hospital and Director of the Center for Community-Engaged Medicine at Tufts Medical Center. “Closer relationships are a hallmark of post traumatic brain growth, and our survey’s results indicate this may be a silver lining of disrupted daily life during the pandemic.”

The survey is the first of three that will be conducted. The next report to be released will explore the pandemic’s impact on children with special health care needs and focus on child discipline and intimate partner violence during this period.

Dr. Sege explores the benefits of positive childhood experiences in a Pediatrics Perspective, “Reasons for HOPE,” to be published in the AAP journal, Pediatrics on April 20. The peer-reviewed article is based on his work with 7,000 service providers throughout the country and is published as an additional resource here.

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About the American Academy of Pediatrics
The American Academy of Pediatrics is an organization of 67,000 primary care pediatricians, pediatric medical subspecialists and pediatric surgical specialists dedicated to the health, safety and well-being of infants, children, adolescents and young adults. For more information, visit www.aap.org.

About Prevent Child Abuse America
Prevent Child Abuse America is a leading champion for all children in the United States. Founded in 1972 and headquartered in Chicago, we are the nation’s oldest and largest organization dedicated to the primary prevention of child abuse and neglect, working to actively prevent all forms of child abuse and neglect before they occur. Our success is founded on a nationwide network of state chapters and nearly 600 Healthy Families America home visiting sites, which directly provide parents and caregivers a wide variety of services and resources that help children grow up to be productive, contributing members of their communities and society. Our comprehensive approach is informed by science—we translate and disseminate innovative research to promote proven solutions that our vast network then puts into action. And we raise public awareness and advocate for family friendly policies at the national, state and local levels to support transformative programs and promote the conditions and contexts that help children, families and communities across the country thrive.

About Tufts Medical Center and Tufts Children’s Hospital 
Tufts Medical Center is an exceptional, not-for-profit, 415-bed academic medical center that is home to both a full-service hospital for adults and Tufts Children’s Hospital. Conveniently located in downtown Boston, the Medical Center is the principal teaching hospital for Tufts University School of Medicine. The Medical Center features a level one trauma center with rooftop helipad, the largest heart transplant center in New England and a renowned research program, ranking among the top 10 percent of independent hospitals to receive federal research funding. A physician network of 1,800 New England Quality Care Alliance doctors represents our strong commitment to health in the community. Tufts Medical Center is a founding member of Wellforce. For more information, visit www.tuftsmedicalcenter.org.  

Media Contacts:

Lisa Black, lblack@aap.org or 630-626-6084
Jeremy Lechan, jlechan@tuftsmedicalcenter.org