Skip to main content

The Short-term Impact of COVID-19 on Families


The recent COVID-19 pandemic has changed numerous things about our daily lives. Much of the public focus has naturally been on the health and safety of individuals, families, and society. Others have focused on the economic impact of both the virus and the various policies implemented to slow its spread and “flatten the curve.” Social distancing has changed almost all aspects of our daily interactions.

One common consequence of these measures for families has been increased time spent together in the home. This increased time together has likely benefited many families. Long dormant relationships have perhaps been rekindled as priorities have been reassessed.

Some whose work-related stressors have kept them out of the home may have a newfound passion for their family relationships. Many parents are finding increased opportunity to interact and draw close to their children.

Other families are getting the opportunity to create new traditions and family rituals, often to fend off boredom but in the meantime creating meaningful interactions that are fostering closeness and unity.

But there are other ways in which families may be struggling during this time of uncertainty. These struggles may not make the news headlines the way other topics do, but they are just as important for the long-term sustainability and health of our society and culture. In the social sciences, classic stress theory provides some important insights into what many of these short-term stressors may be for families.

Families are “stressed” when they encounter changes in their environment, and they cope with that stress based on their available resources. For example, when an appliance, let’s say a dishwasher, breaks down (change), the family may feel stress. They may then hire someone to fix the appliance, turning to financial and time resources to cope with the stressor. They could also look to each other as resources to wash the dishes by hand until the appliance can be fixed.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the associated societal changes have elevated the felt stress of most families by increasing change in their lives while decreasing resources. With families losing income and losing access to institutional resources (school systems, gyms, parks, etc.), most individuals and families have fewer coping resources to deal with the elevated stress and anxiety during this time of crisis. A long history of social science suggests that this elevated individual and family stress will translate into what I call an exaggeration effect of negative outcomes. That means that any underlying negative behaviors or issues that families were dealing with prior to the pandemic will be exaggerated during it. From Fargo to New Jersey, we have already seen news reports of elevated child and domestic abuse, an easy illustration of this principle.

Other negative family outcomes, less enticing to reporters but equally important, are also happening. Social scientists have noted that web traffic to pornography sites has increased during the pandemic, suggesting that risk-taking behaviors and compulsive pornography use are increasing. The National Institute on Drug Abuse has issued caution about the impact the pandemic might have on drug abuse. Scholars have already warned about the increases likely to be seen in both depression and anxiety and the CDC has been so concerned about mental health during the pandemic, they launched a new section of their website strictly dedicated to mental health resources. The list goes on and on.

Many of these issues predated COVID-19, but in some families, the pandemic has shined a spotlight on these issues and caused them to both accelerate and become aggregated problems in their daily lives.

So, what can families do if they find themselves struggling with the realities of these issues? What if a family is physically healthy, but struggling with unique conflicts and relational issues that have been brought to the surface due to the changes over the last few months? The immediate need for most families is an increase of available resources.

Given the circumstances, digital and online resources are increasingly important. Luckily, while most families are often unaware of these resources, they do exist. For example, online resources are available to help combat mental health problems and domestic violence.

What about those families that aren’t suffering with major stressors but simply need better parenting or couple resources to cope with increased tension or fighting? Often one of the most important resources for families is to recapture the structure that school and work schedules forced on many prior to the pandemic. Sit down with your partner or family and map out a daily schedule and routine. For many families, this creates a sense of normalcy that can help alleviate some of the conflicts and stresses that have popped up.

Another important resource for families to remember during times of crisis is maintaining and/or establishing family rituals and traditions. This might be a great time to start a few new family traditions. Research has found that such rituals improve closeness and foster healthy family relationships. Consider starting a weekly dessert bar or a family movie night.

Find new ways to interact through board games or an art project. These events will serve to destress your family and provide the needed breaks from the daily challenges of living in close proximity to each other.

In addition to finding ways to strengthen your own family, consider reaching out to families around you who may be struggling in the shadows of their own home. Despite our need to socially distance, social resources are especially vital for families that are struggling. You never know how even a friendly voice, or a reassuring comment might help lift up and support families around us.

Most current pandemic related policy is aimed at either health or economic outcomes, the two most concerning issues for the vast majority of the country. In the meantime, while many families are thriving in an environment that is forcing family time and closeness, many others, especially those who were already struggling with underlying family issues before the pandemic, are suffering silently (or not so silently on some social media outlets).

We are truly in a unique moment in time when it comes to family interaction. This is both an opportunity and a challenge for families. Old problems might pop back up or new problems might arise. Seeking out and being proactive in building your family resources—and reaching out to those whose resources are even less adequate—can be a critical part of your survival plan for the current pandemic.