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The coronavirus pandemic might be increasing stress levels and depressive symptoms among parents, but it is not necessarily affecting their capacity to nurture and care for their children—at least as long as they retain a reliable source of income. That is one of the somewhat surprising findings of a new study from the Becker Friedman Institute for Economics at the University of Chicago, according to one of the study’s authors, Ariel Kalil.

While past research has found that job loss “almost uniformly” has detrimental impacts on families and can worsen parent-child interactions, Kalil and her colleagues’ recent survey of 572 low-income families with preschool age children in Chicago found that hasn’t necessarily been the case during the pandemic. Parent-child interactions were only negatively impacted by families that reported both job loss and a substantial loss of household income, but not for other families. That includes ones who experienced job loss, but made up some of the income, most likely through programs like the expanded unemployment insurance provided by the federal government. “What does it mean if you lose a job during a pandemic and your income doesn’t go down? Well basically it’s subsidized time at home,” Kalil said. “For parents, that can be good, because parents like that time they spend with their children.”

Here are some of the main findings of the report:

  • Parents who lost both their job and income were significantly more likely to report depressive symptoms compared to parents who lost a job but not income. Income loss seemed “to create stress and hurt child development.”
  • Parents who lost their job and income reported an increase in life stress and reported feeling “less hopeful about the future.”
  • Parents who lost their jobs but not their household income were more likely to engage in positive interactions with their child and reported their children enjoy the time they spend together, while those who lost their incomes were more likely to lose their temper or yell at their child.
  • Families that reported a pandemic-related job loss but not a loss of household income did not report adverse effects regarding stress or parent-child interactions. The authors suggested that unemployment insurance and federal stimulus money may have created a financial buffer for these families.

The report also found that the economic stresses of the pandemic have worsened mothers’ mental health and stress and called for an increase in interventions and support. Already, there are examples of programs doing this work. In Washington state, for example, Nurture Seattle, a program that connects new moms to experienced parenting mentors, has prioritized addressing maternal mental health via text messages since it launched in April.

Jennifer Duval, program manager for Nurture Seattle, which is run in partnership with the Seattle-based Committee for Children, said the program seeks to alleviate increased rates of anxiety and depression among new parents. “We know that [mood and anxiety disorders] are the most common complication of pregnancy and childbirth, but they’re the least treated and the least reported,” Duval said. Nurture Seattle aims to “create a support system for [parents] to prevent against any of these issues and also to encourage them to talk to health care providers if they’re suffering from them.”

In a recent survey of the mothers it serves in the Seattle area, Nurture Seattle found encouraging results: 85 percent of those who responded to the survey said their relationship with their mentor encouraged them to talk to someone about their mood or anxiety disorders and seek help. Similar efforts have launched in North Carolina, California and Indiana, among other states.

Despite the promising findings of the University of Chicago study, Kalil cautions that the study’s sample size is small and parents were surveyed early in the pandemic—before the beefed-up unemployment insurance ended. While the results of the study signal to Kalil that parents, to some extent, have possibly hidden their personal stress from their children, the authors caution that if the pandemic continues and “economic hardship wears on, its ill effects could spill over in parent-child interactions.”

Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Early Childhood newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Wednesday with trends and top stories about early learning. Subscribe today!

This story about parent-child interactions was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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