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Supporting Family Mental Health During COVID-19 

The Bipartisan Policy Center recognizes the importance of child care and early learning in the lives of children and families. Yet, with the COVID-19 pandemic, the world we knew two months ago has drastically changed, upending our daily routines and what we had once known as “normal.” This  blog series is an effort to support parents of young children, many of whom are asking for guidance on how to best nurture, educate, and support their children during this time. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has created many sources of stress and anxiety for parents of young children across the country. Concerns about health, combined with uncertainty over unemployment and finances, work, child care, and access to food and other resources are all contributing to increasing stress among American adults. According to an April 2020 poll conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 45% of U.S. adults say that their mental health has been negatively affected by stress over the virus and its effects, an increase from 32% in March 2020. Further intensifying the impact of these stressors is a lack of connection due to social distancing and shelter-in-place orders that can leave many feeling isolated.

Uncertainties over child care are also contributing to stress for many parents. BPC’s April 2020 survey with Morning Consult found that as the child care landscape changes due to COVID-19, parents’ caregiving activities are changing dramatically. Sixty percent of all child care programs are fully closed and not providing any care. One third of parents working remotely report alternating work hours with someone else in their household in order to care for their children, and nearly 30% of parents are either working outside normal business hours or taking paid or unpaid leave to care for their children.

The interactions and experiences children have during their first several years of life greatly impact their development, and with both children and parents spending more time together in the home, there are new opportunities for learning. However, during this current crisis, stress and anxiety can be exacerbated. Just as positive behaviors can promote healthy outcomes for children, parental stress can negatively impact children’s behavior and development.

This pandemic is a stressful time for many. To support parents of young children, BPC has provided a list of guidance to help parents better manage stress and promote their own well-being throughout the pandemic. Using these tools can also be helpful in teaching children how to cope with stressful and uncertain situations.

  • Establish a daily routine: The disruption of routine and structure can be stressful for both adults and children. To maintain balance and a sense of normalcy, structure each day with activities for learning and play, and stick to regular sleeping and eating schedules. Routine actions, such as making the bed, showering, getting dressed, and eating nutritious meals can help people feel in control through this pandemic.
  • Cultivate good physical health: Evidence shows that physical activity can reduce depressive systems and can help regulate one’s mood. Exercising regularly can improve physical and mental health, and also support better sleeping habits.
  • Find time to unwind: Parents of young children can manage stress by setting time aside each day to unwind. This may include practicing mindfulness, exercising, taking a walk around the block, writing in a journal, or listening to music. For those teleworking with young children at home, this may mean stepping away from work and other obligations when children are asleep.
  • Spend time outside: Researchers have found an association between spending time in nature and reduction in stress levels. When possible, parents can spend 20 minutes outside in nature, either in a backyard or neighborhood park (while continuing to practice social distancing) to unwind or focus on their mental health. Time spent outdoors can also help children burn off energy, which may lead to better behavior in the home.
  • Limit consumption of news media: As technology has advanced over the last several decades, many are consumed by the 24-hour news cycle. Yet, too much news media during a crisis, including the COVID-19 pandemic, can have negative impacts on mental health. During this time, taking breaks from watching or reading news media can be beneficial for parents. This can also limit the exposure of news media to children, who may experience fear and anxiety when hearing something they don’t fully understand.
  • Stay connected to friends and family, virtually: Required social distancing may leave parents feeling isolated and contributes to the stress they are already facing. Connecting with friends and family virtually will help maintain human connection during the pandemic. Reaching out to friends, neighbors, or community organizations that may need support can give parents and children a greater sense of control and can lessen feelings of isolation and anxiety.
  • Recognize and respond to signs of stress: Parents can learn to recognize signs of stress in their children to support their development. Stress in young children often manifests physically, and may include tantrums, sleep problems, abdominal pain or other physical pain, bedwetting, or emotional changes—all of which can contribute to parental stress. Parents can better respond to their children’s needs by recognizing these symptoms of stress.
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