During the COVID-19 pandemic, closed schools and daycare centers, parents working at home, and financial insecurity are increasing stress levels and frictions at home. These conditions lead to the potential for increases in harsh, aggressive parenting and child maltreatment that may go unreported. Against a backdrop of already high levels of family violence in the United States, family service providers should focus on ways to reduce conflict and aggression in all family relationships.
Headlines are announcing that reports of child abuse are down substantially since social distancing began. Calls to states’ child abuse hotlines, including Pennsylvania’s ChildLine (1-800-932-0313), are down up to 50% .
A silver lining in the pandemic crisis, right?
Is harsh, aggressive parenting a problem during the pandemic?
The decline in reports of child maltreatment is likely due to the closing of schools, childcare centers, and recreational centers rather than a true decline in child abuse. These are the settings in which adults often observe signs of child abuse, or where children confide in trusted adults about what is happening at home. Teachers, mental health providers, and some other professionals are “mandated reporters”—meaning they are required by law to report suspected child abuse to local or state authorities. With the closure of schools and other youth-serving facilities during the pandemic, fewer outside adults have contact with children and children have fewer options for accessing help.
In fact, rather than going down, harsh parenting and levels of maltreatment may be rising. For example, recent reports from hospital emergency rooms indicate that injuries of children in cases of suspected child abuse are more severe than usual.
Increased harsh and even abusive parenting during the pandemic would be consistent with existing research, which indicates that negative, over-reactive, and physically aggressive parenting becomes more severe during times of crisis. For example, in a national study of over 2,000 high-risk families during the Great Recession of 2008-2009, levels of harsh physical discipline and parental aggression increased . And, in a population-level study in 74 U.S. counties located in three geographic regions, the incidence of abusive head trauma to children increased by over 50% during the Great Recession.
Earlier research into parenting and family relations—such as studies of family relations during the Great Depression by Glen Elder and during the Iowa Farm Crisis by Rand Conger and colleagues —found that economic shocks were associated with higher levels of aggressive parenting and negative impacts on children’s development. This research documented pathways to parenting aggression that began with parents’ financial stress, leading to depressive feelings and conflict between parents, and finally to harsh parenting.
Stress is a key factor that can compromise parents’ ability to remain warm, engaged, and supportive with children . In general, high levels of stress affects our brain functioning in ways that facilitate quick, simple responses: Stress reduces and narrows the scope of our attention, channels our emotional reactions and thinking along automatic pathways , and leads to quick, reactive responses. For a parent, stress then can reduce our ability to understand the multiple factors that contribute to a situation in favor of automatic, simple, and often negative assumptions . We may tend to assume a child is not doing what they are supposed to because they are being stubborn or oppositional, rather than considering that a child may be confused, afraid, tired, or attempting to protect themselves from something we are not aware of.
Stress also reduces our ability to interrupt and slow down our automatic or impulsive reactions to a challenge or threat. We have less ability to stop ourselves from reactively yelling or striking out in anger when we see a child’s behavior as threatening. How does a child threaten an adult? A child can threaten our well-being, especially when we are stressed, by seeming to disrupt the way we like our home to look (e.g., clean) or sound (e.g., quiet), or challenging our sense of authority (e.g., “I’m the parent…who do you think you are?”) or peace of mind (e.g., “you are driving me crazy!”).
During the pandemic, many of us have experienced higher levels of stress—especially parents. Loss of a job, reductions in working hours, uncertainty about future work, concerns about paying bills, being able to afford food and shelter—all of these uncertainties are highly troubling for any of us. For parents responsible for caring for children’s well-being, these threats to financial security are especially stressful.
The health threat of contracting COVID-19—as well as fears for one’s own parents, extended family members, and friends—contributes an additional layer of worry and stress. And the consequences of shelter-in-place and social distancing interventions have led to spikes in other sources of stress—reduced social contact and perhaps support, concerns about going into stores and public places, increased responsibilities for taking care of children around the clock, as well as supervising and supporting children’s newly remote education.
Levels of Family Violence Were High Before the Pandemic
Against this background of increased stress, mental health problems, and family conflict that may lead to increased levels of harsh parenting during the pandemic, it is important to note that family violence in the United States was already at levels that were much too high before the pandemic.
In 2018, there were about 4,700 cases of substantiated child abuse or neglect in Pennsylvania (the majority of cases of maltreatment are neglect, which we are not considering closely in this article). Since some research indicates that only half of child maltreatment cases are reported, let’s double the number of substantiated cases to 9,500. With a population of over 2.5 million children under 18, the rate of child abuse in Pennsylvania in one year is about four-tenths of one percent of children. This seems to be a very low rate of child maltreatment.
Yet substantiated cases of child abuse represents only the tip of the iceberg of children’s victimization in families. Pennsylvania defines child abuse as occurring when an individual acts or fails to prevent something that causes serious harm to a child under the age of 18. But exactly what parenting behaviors are defined as child maltreatment varies across each county’s child protective services agency. The law defines child abuse in some concrete ways, including “kicking, biting, throwing, burning, stabbing or cutting a child in a manner that endangers the child.” But local agencies and workers can disagree about the point at which acts such as kicking or throwing actually “endanger” the child. Agencies and caseworkers can also have different ways of classifying other behaviors, such as pinching, pulling hair, or slapping (although the law defines slapping as abuse when the child is under one year of age). Additionally, there are few guidelines about what combination of acts, over how many incidents, across what duration of time constitute abuse. In general, protective services only classify quite severe levels of aggression as physical abuse. As a mandated reporter in another state, I found that reports of parenting aggression that did not involve external markers such as bruising, bleeding, or broken bones often did not qualify as “child abuse” in the eyes of protective services.
But even “low-severity” forms of harsh and aggressive parenting are quite harmful to children, with lifelong impacts on mental and physical health, academic success, alcohol and substance use, friendship and romantic relationship quality. In fact, corporal punishment , such as spanking, and “psychological” aggression such as yelling, name-calling, and threatening, have long-term negative consequences for children, according to research . Given these negative consequences, many other countries have laws that prohibit parents’ use of physical punishment of children—even in the form of spanking.
As a result of our permissive attitudes and laws for protecting children, parenting aggression is fairly widespread among U.S. families—especially among families with young children. According to one of the best studies on the topic, which conducted anonymous telephone surveys of parents with young children, 87% of parents reported using some form of physical discipline or aggression with their young children over the past year. And 13% of parents admitted to using “severe” forms of physical aggression—such as beating. This level of parent-reported severe physical aggression is over 60 times greater than the 0.4% rate of child abuse detected by protective service agencies in Pennsylvania! And although parents were surveyed anonymously, it is still likely that they under-reported the severity of their aggression.
Complex Patterns of Aggression
The problem of harsh, aggressive parenting is not only more widespread than we usually believe, butit is also more complicated than we sometimes imagine. Research on parenting aggression finds that harsh parenting is often part of complex, family-wide patterns of conflict and aggression. For example, in half of families where parents’ reported that they used physical aggression with children, there was also past-year physical aggression between parents (i.e., “intimate partner violence”—which is itself widespread). And these two forms of family violence, parenting and couple aggression, are also strongly linked with the presence of sibling conflict and violence in families.
Although largely neglected as an important influence on development, the quality of sibling relationships, both the positive (supportive, warm) and negative aspects have lifelong impacts on children that rival the impact of parenting. The sibling relationship is in fact the most violent relationship in the family: In one study, 70% of families reported physical violence between siblings, and over 40% of children were kicked, bitten, or punched by their siblings in the past year . The intensity and unrelenting nature of sibling conflict can be very distressing for parents—in fact, sibling conflict is parents’ number one complaint about family life . Sibling conflict is so difficult that this source of stress can lead parents to become depressed, leading parents to alternatively withdraw and disengage, or react and become impulsively aggressive in their parenting. When families come under stress such as in the current pandemic, increased sibling conflict can be both a cause and consequence of conflict in other family relationships.
In our previous family prevention research, we have found that strategies focusing on couple relations and on sibling conflict can indeed help reduce parenting aggression. In one study, we found that by improving coparenting support and coordination among parents, the Family Foundations program was able to reduce parent stress and depression , and improve warm, patient parenting and ultimately children’s well-being . In another study conducted by Susan McHale and myself , we found that by focusing on improving siblings’ relations with each other, the SIBlings are Special (SIBS) program also achieved reductions in mothers’ level of depressive feelings.
The picture that emerges from family research is that, during a period of crisis such as the pandemic we are in now, multiple sources of external stress may accentuate the high levels of conflict and aggression that existed in American families even in good times. Family research suggests that while teaching positive parenting skills is helpful, this focus may not be sufficient. Strategies for reducing harsh parenting must take into account the financial and health-related stressors facing parents. And going beyond a narrow focus on improving parenting behaviors, family service providers should focus on ways to reduce conflict and aggression in all family relationships—including the romantic and co-parenting aspects of parents’ relations with each other, and the often intense and chronic levels of conflict in sibling relations as well.
In the meantime, with summer camps cancelled and the status of schools for 2020-2021 in question, local and state authorities need to seek alternative ways to monitor the well-being of children and their exposure as victims or observers of family violence. As monitoring children’s well-being who are at home with parents most or all of the time may be difficult, an alternative strategy is to support families—especially families experiencing financial or other stress. Such support should include reducing financial and other stressors affecting parents, and implementing strategies to enhance parent, couple, and family resilience.