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'Stay at Home' Orders Are Stressing U.S. Families, Survey Shows

THURSDAY, April 2, 2020 (HealthDay News) -- In the new coronavirus reality, the family home has become the nexus of everything -- school, day care, work, social life -- and it's stressing out a lot of American parents, a new report suggests.

The report, in which almost 300 parents of kids under 12 in the United States were surveyed, found that since the pandemic was declared, 83% said their schools were closed. A quarter of those parents reported more conflicts with their children. Another 15% said they had disciplined their children more often.

Nearly 20% of parents reported yelling and screaming at their kids more often since the pandemic was declared, and 9% said they used harsh words more readily. Five percent of parents said they spanked or hit their children more often.

"So many families are already living in tough conditions, and we don't have a strong enough safety net for kids and families, so we wanted to start a conversation about this. Everybody is going to struggle in different ways, but kids are vulnerable and voiceless. Kids are going to suffer from this, too," said report author Shawna Lee. She's an associate professor at the University of Michigan's School of Social Work.

Lee said she's concerned the increasing stress levels may lead to an uptick in child abuse.

One parent explained how their family is dealing with the situation, and said this of their children, "They are confused. They don't understand fully the dangers of a pandemic. They want to play with their friends and are getting annoyed with the same routine at home, and playing only with each other. We are also rationing food and household items, and they are anxious and scared by that. I can see it in their faces and their volunteering to make sacrifices for us."

Money worries making matters worse

Another parent put it like this: "She is just sad because she misses her friends at school and her teachers … She is tired of being stuck in the house and extremely bored. She has been quite mouthy the last couple of weeks, but I think it's out of sheer boredom."

Other concerning findings reported by parents included:

  • Half are worried they can't pay their bills,

  • 55% worry that their money will run out,

  • 52% said financial concerns affected their parenting,

  • 50% said social isolation got in the way of parenting,

  • Four in 10 parents had shouted, screamed or yelled at their kids during the past two weeks,

  • One in 6 said they had spanked or slapped their child in the past two weeks, and 11% said they'd done it a few times or more.

"We're going to see families who adapt, and I think we'll see families already on the margins will be struggling even more," Lee said.

The report, published as a research brief on March 31, wasn't all bad news, however.

"We actually found that parents are doing a lot of positive things," Lee noted.

Just over 90% of parents said they felt quite close or extremely close to their children. More than eight in 10 parents praised or complimented kids very often, and 88% said they and their children had shown love to each other very often in the past two weeks.

Routines help at home

Jacqueline Sperling, a clinical psychologist at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass., and an instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School, said families are facing a lot of stressors right now.

"Stressors run the gamut -- parents are working from home and no longer have school as a form of childcare, so they have to manage the kids and some schools provide online school, but some don't. Families are taking financial hits and may not have additional resources. It's also atypical to spend so much time together. There are no play dates or extracurricular activity and everyone is in the same shared space," Sperling explained.

Both experts said that the first thing parents should do is set up a routine for their kids, and for themselves. Sperling said if you're working from home, make sure the kids know that there are certain times you are unavailable. She suggested scheduling time for physical activity, preferably outside for some fresh air and sunshine (as long as you maintain safe social distances).

Sperling also advised staying connected with family and friends as much as you can. Video chat with grandparents and school mates, if possible. She said it's important for parents to maintain connections, too.

And, she said parents should try to schedule time for themselves. "You're going to need to get creative about your own self-care. Find a quiet corner in the house where you can sip your coffee by yourself," Sperling said, and added if you don't make some time for yourself, you won't have the resources you need to care for your children.

She said parents shouldn't dismiss their feelings. "Acknowledging the things for which one is grateful [like more time with kids] is a good coping strategy, but don't dismiss the stress you're feeling. Acknowledge that this is also hard and stressful," Sperling said.

What should you do if you've lost your cool with your child and are now feeling terrible about it?

Apologize, Sperling suggested. This helps children learn to repair relationships. "Parents can say, I am really sorry I snapped at you. It didn't have to do with you, and I'm sorry."

And exercise self-compassion. This is a stressful and new situation. "Everyone is just trying to do the best they can," Sperling said.

More information

Get some tips on schooling and working from home from the American Academy of Pediatrics' Healthy Children website.

SOURCES: Shawna Lee, Ph.D., associate professor, University of Michigan School of Social Work, and director, Parenting in Context Research Lab; Jacqueline Sperling, Ph.D., clinical psychologist, McLean Hospital, Belmont, Mass., and instructor, psychology, Harvard Medical School; March 31, 2020, "Stress and Families During the Coronavirus Pandemic," University of Michigan

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