The COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown measures led to the loss of a daily structure for many, and the restrictions on individuals meeting anyone outside their household – meaning family members were no longer able to see each other face to face – had a significant impact on everyone’s lives. A particular concern has been the impact on children’s mental wellbeing.
Studies report children feeling isolated and lonely, anxious, angry and worried due to uncertainty about how long the crisis will last, as well as fearful of someone in their family becoming infected, ‘particularly members who often featured prominently but were unable to be with them now’. Children who were disadvantaged and marginalised before the pandemic have been disproportionately affected.
Children of separated parents faced particular challenges in moving between parents’ houses, as well as keeping in touch when face-to-face contact was not an option and usual venues for shared activities were closed. Loss of contact with other family members such as grandparents was hard felt, especially where they usually played a part in daily routines. Recent reports predict a rise in couples seeking divorce based on the increased number seeking legal advice on separation. However, as the UK faces a second wave of COVID-19 infections and tightening of restrictions, the role of grandparents as informal caregivers has been recognised in the most recent government advice in England.
Good parental communication, contact with both parents, support from grandparents and wider family and friends, as well as absence of conflict are known to help children of separated parents. The opportunity to talk to family members and friends offers support and reduces isolation. Providing children with ‘a sense of belonging within the family’ and ‘maintaining the structure, quality and quantity of social networks’ is important in reducing the ‘impact of enforced physical distancing’.
Communication, contact and support were not available in the usual way during lockdown; instead we rapidly had to learn new ways of communicating. Parents faced the challenge of home-schooling their children while working at home and found juggling these demands very stressful, some facing concerns about their health and future employment. Globally, the incidence of domestic violence increased (see Brooks-Hay and Lombard’s recent article on Transforming Society) and as well as being without access to the usual sources of external informal support, children also lacked access to the safety net of schools, health and social care. Those in families characterised by conflict have been exposed to greater risk.
When lockdown measures were introduced in England, guidance was issued that children were able to move between their parents’ homes provided it was ‘in their best interests’. Decisions needed to take account of children’s present health, the risk of infection and presence of any recognised vulnerable individuals in one household or another. Where it was not possible for children to move between homes, alternative arrangements needed to be put in place so children could maintain contact with both parents, such as using FaceTime, WhatsApp, Skype, Zoom or phone.
Good communication between parents, and with children, is crucial in decision making and maintaining contact in these circumstances, and so is access to technology and the ability to use online tools. With venues closed, contact might have involved developing new shared interests such as taking up a hobby, learning a new skill, playing online games or fun challenges. Children whose experience aligns with this may have found positive opportunities for personal growth and family cohesion, with relationships strengthened as a result of maintaining contact in this way and diversity in the way they are sustained in the future.
However, children without access to technology or with limited access to online apps or personal devices were unable to communicate easily with family and friends. This impacted not only on the quality of their communication but also access to support services, many of which moved online. Where they lack private space, privacy during conversations is impossible. These children have experienced increased isolation, loneliness and lack of access to support and been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
During lockdown, children were unable to spend time in informal support settings, increasing their feelings of isolation and anxiety. At the same time, parents facing their own worries lacked access to childcare, creating particular difficulties for single parents, SEND children and those living in poverty. Some parents, preoccupied by their concerns, will have struggled to prioritise their children’s needs. Children whose families are characterised by conflict, parental mental health or substance abuse issues are likely to have been particularly negatively affected.
‘Safeguarding issues have been largely hidden from view during lockdown’. Early indications of the pandemic’s impact on family relationships and children’s mental wellbeing will start to emerge as children return to school. Staff will be need to support children of separated parents as well as those whose parents have decided to separate during lockdown, although they may not always feel best equipped to do so. They will form a crucial part of services to families in ‘dealing with the aftermath of the pandemic’ and reducing long-term consequences for mental health, but understanding their situation and the issues lockdown created will require further research as a first step in responding to their needs.
Susan Kay-Flowers is a programme leader at Liverpool John Moores University. Her research experience in the area of children and young people’s relationships builds on her earlier professional career in probation and the family courts.
Susan has developed the ‘Framework for understanding children’s accommodation of parental separation’ which can be used by practitioners to support their work with children and families and by parents. You can download it for free here.
From her work, a resource pack – ‘Coping with Separation and Divorce’ – for use with young people has been developed and produced by Kay Flowers Consultancy. Further details can be found at: https://www.kayflowersconsultancy.co.uk/
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