The impact of Covid-19 on vulnerable children and what we can do to help
Who would ever have thought that Christmas 2020 would be less about carolling and concerts and more about tripping over school books and laptop cables as we dash from Zoom to Zoom in between school runs (or lessons – depending where you’re at on the scale of the varying quarantine scenarios)? Pandemic life. It’s been chaotic at times – crushing and saddening but also… revealing and in many ways necessary and even beautiful, because at least we’ve been in it together, as a world, a nation; in our communities and with our families.
Yet, what of those to whom ‘family’ is equated with anxiety, stress or pain? What has been the safety net for these mums, dads and children when their world seemed to be crumbling in a vortex of uncertainty? Were parents and carers, who were wondering where their next meal was going to come from and how they were going to home school, able to put their arms around their children and say, “I love you. I’m here for you – we’re in this together”?
To fully grasp the severity of the impact of Covid-19 on vulnerable children in our communities, we have to backtrack slightly – to what it was like pre-pandemic.
Before coronavirus (and lockdown) 4.2 million children were living in poverty.
The unrelenting stress of living in poverty affects child wellbeing; hindering the brain development of children, with long-term consequences on physical and mental health leading to lifelong effects that follow them into adulthood. This was a fact for many children before the pandemic, and research suggests that Covid-19 is likely to push many more children into this reality, unless we do something to intervene.
Battle UK’s The State of Child Poverty ’20 report offers a unique insight into the impact of the pandemic from inside the homes of some of the most vulnerable families in the UK. Whilst the report reinforces data seen elsewhere (i.e. increased unemployment, reliance on foodbanks, an increase of Universal Credit recipients) it is unique in providing first-hand, direct experiences of what frontline workers have witnessed from their interactions with families during the crisis. Here are some of the key findings from the report:
84% of frontline workers have seen increases in children and young people’s mental health problems.
75% have seen an increase in behaviour problems.
83% of frontline workers have seen an increase in need for foodbanks and 64% for local authority welfare assistance.
Frontline workers reported major difficulties during lockdown for families in accessing basics; 57% could not afford essential household items and 47% of families were unable to afford food.
The Children’s Commissioner’s recent Childhood in the Time of Covid report suggests that over 500,000 children (roughly 4%) in the UK lived in homes where parent-child relationships worsened over lockdown. Children in low-income households were 70% more likely to be in a family where the parent reported a deterioration in parent-child relationships.
The report goes on to highlight the economic impacts of coronavirus on the welfare of children and families. It has been estimated that median household income fell by 4.5% between May 2019 and May 2020, the largest yearly fall since the 1970s. Early estimates suggest that 300,000 children have been pushed into poverty by the disruptive effects of lockdown on unemployment. These figures are likely to underestimate the full economic impact of coronavirus on children and families, since unemployment is forecast to reach 12% at the end of the year as the recession unfolds.
Reduced family incomes and restrictions on movement increased food insecurity for children. The Trussell Trust reported an 89% increase in need for emergency food parcels in April 2020 compared to the same month last year. At the end of April, 350,000 children were living in a household where someone had been forced to skip a meal in the last week and 249,000 were in families that had accessed foodbanks.
The Children’s Commissioner summates her report as follows:
“The result is a rising tide of childhood vulnerability. Even before the crisis, there were 2.2 million children in England living in households affected by any of the so-called ‘toxic trio’ of family issues: domestic abuse, parental drug and/or alcohol dependency, and severe parental mental health issues. After months of national anxiety, the stripping back of key support services and an emerging economic recession, the impact of lockdown on children is only just starting to become clear. Children can be both resilient and adaptable, but they can’t do this on their own, and the crisis has shown how few resources some children – and their families – can rely upon when things go wrong.”
Some children enjoyed aspects of lockdown. For example, families whose incomes remained stable, perhaps as a result of the furlough scheme, often found that they had more quality time to spend with one another, and some children became less stressed as a result of a break from the regular rhythms of everyday life. But for vulnerable and disadvantaged children, the story has been very different.
In short, Covid-19 exposed and then amplified existing inequalities facing children, meaning those children already facing the worst life chances have felt the greatest burden from the virus and our response to it. Dr Dasha Nicholls, child specialist and part of the You-Cope study into young people’s health and wellbeing during the pandemic (research that is being led by University College London and Great Ormond Street hospital) says:
“This generation is entering uncharted territory, where their opportunities have been devastated. People talk of the resilience of the young but this crisis has happened so quickly that young people have had no time to change and adapt. The impact on them could become entrenched, with potentially enduring consequences.”
Whilst it is important that we put out the fires started by Covid-19 by relieving the burden placed on our most vulnerable children in the event of further lockdowns, it is crucial we address the underlying issues that made these children and their families so susceptible to adversity in the first place.
The good news is that there is hope! If we can support parents, we can turn round some of these statistics and help children thrive.
The first thing we need to do in addressing the needs of the most vulnerable children in our country is acknowledge that the need is now and that if nothing is done, there will be long-term consequences. At a social policy level, the level of need needs mapping and crucially, joint working with local partners is essential to ensure no families slip through the net. We need new models of delivery of child/adolescent and parenting interventions that use video and digital approaches to support children and families in spite of lockdown, which is where Kids Matter comes in.
Kids Matter is a parenting programme that equips parents and carers facing disadvantages with confidence, competence, and community, enabling their children to thrive.
Our vision is to see every child in need raised in a strong family. As the aforementioned research suggests, poverty and the far-reaching impact of Covid-19 are rendering families in already disadvantaged communities unable to cope, and it is children who suffer the most in these situations. If we don’t do anything to address this, we will have millions of children growing into adults with emotional, psychological, and social problems. Research has shown that the most effective early intervention to prevent these issues is group-based parenting programmes. Kids Matter affects change in families by engaging local churches to use our relational, evidence-informed programmes for parents and carers in their communities.
If you’d like to find out more about what we do, please get in touch (email@example.com) or visit our website (www.kidsmatter.org.uk) but in the meantime, you might be wondering how you (as someone not working in government
or for the NHS or on the frontline in this pandemic) can make a difference in the lives of vulnerable children and families. Here are some suggestions:
We can use our spheres of influence to raise awareness of the seriousness of these issues and the impact on society long-term if we do not look after children today. In other words, talk about it. Don’t ignore it and think the need will go away or that somebody else will fix it.
Engage in community. Do you know your neighbours? There were many wonderful stories that came out of lockdown about communities setting up Whatsapp groups in support one another – if one family was self-isolating, another could drop food or necessities at the door etc. This is a great way to support one another locally, and then you might be able to expand this support to disadvantages communities that might be a little bit outside your local sphere of influence.
Contact any local organisations/church and see if there is anything you could do to support families in your community.
To get involved, as a volunteer or by financially supporting our Kids Matter programme, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.