Supporting Parents and Caregivers with Trauma Histories during COVID-19

Publication Date:

March 23, 2021

Topic:

COVID-19

Parents and caregivers across the United States are facing unprecedented challenges, role shifts, and hardships during the COVID-19 pandemic that may negatively impact their parenting and their relationships with their children. Emerging research shows that parents and caregivers are experiencing more significant increases in stress during the pandemic than non-parents. For parents with unresolved histories of adversity and trauma—resulting from experiences such as abuse, assault, or domestic violence—the risks associated with pandemic-related stress may be further compounded.

To promote positive family adaptation to the COVID-19 pandemic, policymakers should increase targeted supports, services, and policies for parents and caregivers with trauma histories. This brief includes information on the impact of COVID-19 on parents and caregivers, particularly those with trauma histories; outlines resiliency factors for this population; and provides guidance for policymakers, providers and agencies, and families on supporting parents and caregivers with trauma histories during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Key Terms

Adversity is a broad term that refers to a wide range of circumstances or events that pose a serious threat to physical or psychological well-being.

Trauma is one possible outcome of exposure to adversity. Trauma occurs when a person perceives an event or set of circumstances as extremely frightening, harmful, or threatening—either emotionally, physically, or both.

Parent is a father, mother, guardian, or other adult who serves as a primary caregiver of a child. A parent may or may not be biologically related to the child.

Caregiver is an adult designated by a parent or guardian or agency who provides regular care and supervision of the child, such as a relative or child care provider.

Pandemic is an outbreak of a disease that occurs over a wide geographic area and affects an exceptionally high proportion of the population.

Trauma reminders are places, people, and feelings that serve as triggers of past traumatic experiences. A person might feel or act like the traumatic event is happening again (e.g., rapid heartbeat, fear, flashbacks).

Loss reminders are places, people, or feelings that serve as triggers of the absence of a loved one. These reminders can bring on feelings of sadness, emptiness, and missing or longing for the loved one’s presence.


Context

Parenting during the COVID-19 pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the lives of countless parents and caregivers, with unknown long-term consequences to their health and well-being. The unprecedented demands placed on parents and caregivers to shift their roles in caregiving—and in their other occupational, educational, and social responsibilities—have created a prolonged state of stress and uncertainty. Parents and caregivers may also experience increased financial hardship and unemployment, loss of consistent child care services, and challenges with virtual learning, all of which can negatively impact parent-child relationships and further increase parental stress.

Parents and caregivers play a critical role in helping children heal and adapt to changing environments. Modeling positive coping skills, instilling family structure and routines, and maintaining social connections are known to promote child well-being during stressful and unpredictable times. However, when parents and caregivers face significant, chronic stress and hardship, their capacity to provide adequate nurturance and support to their children may be diminished.

Parents and caregivers with trauma histories

For parents and caregivers with a history of trauma, the compounding effect of pandemic- and trauma-related stress may further impact parent-child relationships and families’ well-being. Research shows that parents and caregivers with unresolved trauma-related stress may have difficulty responding consistently to their children and using positive parenting practices. During the pandemic, parents and caregivers with trauma histories may experience increased trauma and loss reminders, which can affect their emotional regulation, particularly when social contact is limited or fears about contracting COVID-19 are heightened. Emerging research shows that elevated parental stress due to the COVID-19 pandemic is associated with increased violence at home, harsher parenting, and increased child abuse potential.

Parents and caregivers with trauma histories may also identify with groups that experience worse health and mental health consequences related to COVID-19. As a result of systemic inequities such as poverty, unemployment, lack of affordable housing, discrimination, and limited access to high-quality health care, Native American, Black, and Latinx people are more likely than White people to acquire, be hospitalized for, and die from COVID-19. These systemic inequities similarly increase risk for adversity, trauma, and disparate outcomes. Asian people have also experienced increased racism, anti-Asian xenophobia, and pandemic-fueled harassment and violence due to the origination of COVID-19 in China. The intersectionality of multiple parent/caregiver identities (e.g., race, ethnicity, income, trauma, and mental health history) and their associated values, norms, and risks plays a critical role in designing and implementing effective supports for parents and caregivers with trauma histories during the COVID-19 pandemic.


Resiliency Factors for Parents and Caregivers with Trauma Histories

Decades of research on resilience suggest that protective factors may mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on parents and caregivers with trauma histories. Enhancing personal protective factors for these parents and caregivers can improve long-term outcomes for families. Protective factors include the following:

Positive coping skills

Positive coping skills, such as cognitive-behavioral approaches, encourage parents and caregivers to challenge cognitive distortions and replace them with more helpful thoughts. For example, negative thoughts like “things will never be back to normal, ever again,” could be replaced with “we do not know when the pandemic will end, but there are still many things I can enjoy in my life right now.” Additionally, mindfulness techniques can encourage non-judgmental acceptance of one’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences.

Family and social support networks

Family and/or social supports can be an important component of buffering the negative impacts of trauma. Finding creative ways to stay connected to social supports via text, phone calls, or videoconferencing can reduce isolation for parents and caregivers. Remember that physical distancing does not necessarily mean social distancing.

Family structure, predictability, and routines

Maintaining family structure, predictability, and routines—such as calendars/visual schedules, family meal times, and regular family activities like movie nights at home or board games—throughout the pandemic can be valuable for children and families.

Perceived control over life events

Parents and caregivers should be able to perceive control over life events. Although the COVID-19 pandemic is unpredictable and can change over time without notice (e.g., stay-at-home orders, virtual learning), research shows that focusing on situations that can be controlled in one’s life can improve stress and mood.


Recommendations for Supporting Parents and Caregivers with Trauma Histories during COVID-19

Identifying needs early and promoting resiliency factors for parents and caregivers with trauma histories can significantly buffer families from the negative long-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Below, we provide recommendations for policymakers and providers and agencies to support parents and caregivers with trauma histories, and offer tangible strategies and tools for parents and caregivers to implement themselves.

Recommendations for policymakers