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Juggling Financial Stress And Caregiving, Parents Are 'Very Not OK' In The Pandemic


We have additional results this morning from our survey of COVID-19's economic impact. Sixty percent of U.S. households with children have lost a job, a business or have had their wages reduced since the pandemic started. That's all according to the poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The financial stress is affecting the mental health of parents, and it has also taken a toll on their kids. NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee reports.

RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: When the pandemic started, Khristan Yates was working as a quality assurance analyst at a marketing company.

KHRISTAN YATES: I felt like I had one of the best jobs of my career. I was a part of a really supportive team.

CHATTERJEE: Yates is 31 and made $72,000 and had moved into a bigger apartment in Chicago earlier this year so she and her two kids could have more space. But she lost her job in May. Now she receives $2,000 per month in unemployment, of which $1,300 goes to rent. Then there are utility bills, school supplies for her son and daughter, Internet service so that her children can attend school online and she can search for a new job and the occasional medical bill. She's left with no money for food and has had to turn to food stamps.

YATES: Because I went from having a very stable stream of income and being OK to being very not OK.

CHATTERJEE: Yates says her anxiety has gone through the roof. She struggles to get out of bed, and there have been days when she's even forgotten to eat.

YATES: I would make food for my children, of course, but when it came down to, like, me sitting down and eating, I just couldn't even - it didn't even register. So I would get up with headaches 2, 3, 4 in the morning and it's, oh, well, you haven't eaten in two or three days. That's why your head is on fire.

CHATTERJEE: The stress and uncertainty have even affected her interaction with her 7-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son.

YATES: I've yelled a few times and I've had to come back and go, hey, Mom, should not have done that. I was wrong.

CHATTERJEE: Her kids are feeling the stress, too.

YATES: There are days where they aren't themselves. They normally are very high energy, very loving, very giving children. And there are days, like, they'll snip and snipe at each other, and they normally don't.

CHATTERJEE: They used to love school, she says, but now they're not interested.

YATES: As far as even getting them online to go to school, it is normally - it's pulling teeth.

CHATTERJEE: All this sounds familiar to Anna Johnson, a psychologist at Georgetown University.

ANNA JOHNSON: We have parents reporting that the kids are acting up.

CHATTERJEE: Johnson has been studying a thousand children in mostly low-income families in Tulsa, Okla., since 2016. And she recently surveyed the parents and teachers of those kids about the impact of the pandemic on their families. Sixty percent of parents who responded said they have lost income due to job losses or reduced work hours and 50% said they're struggling to buy food. Johnson says 25% of parents reported feeling depressed themselves and 16% reported yelling at their kids more during the pandemic.

JOHNSON: The parents are stressed. They're short-tempered, irritable, frustrated, potentially resorting to kind of harsh disciplinary strategies. They may be fighting more with the kids.

CHATTERJEE: She says research shows that parents' stress levels and how they interact with their children affects children's mental health and development. And she worries about the toll this is taking on children now.

JOHNSON: I would be concerned that the stress that the parents are experiencing that's trickling down to the kids is going to not go away anytime soon.

CHATTERJEE: Especially now because children have no buffers to their stresses at home. They have no school to physically escape to, no in-person interaction with their teachers and friends. And a recent survey of parents and teachers in Oklahoma revealed that many kids aren't even attending school online.

JOHNSON: You know, about 20% or 30% of them never had any contact with the teacher after the school closed. So you have, like, really big potential achievement gaps, really big potential mental health problems arising from isolation.

CHATTERJEE: Johnson's concerned that these children and their families may not be able to bounce back easily.

JOHNSON: Could this course correct if everything goes back to school and everything opens up again in the next eight months to 12 months? Maybe. But there are going to have to be a lot of resources targeted just to these families to help them overcome what is probably a traumatic experience for them.

CHATTERJEE: It's something that weighs heavily on Yates' mind. She's worried that her son who has special needs is becoming less social.

YATES: He's the more outgoing of the two. He pulled back a lot.

CHATTERJEE: She knows that her daughter is struggling too but doesn't feel equipped to help her.

YATES: I'm looking at her like she's my baby (ph) versus a kid who's suffering. And I know there's a hurt there, but I just don't know how to get to it. I don't know how to heal it.

CHATTERJEE: For now, Yates is trying her best to find a new job and prays that things will get better soon.

Rhitu Chatterjee, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rhitu Chatterjee is a health correspondent with NPR, with a focus on mental health. In addition to writing about the latest developments in psychology and psychiatry, she reports on the prevalence of different mental illnesses and new developments in treatments.