Surveys reveal how families coped with COVID and what support services they need

Families have coped remarkably well with the challenges thrown at them during the pandemic, but improved services for the most vulnerable and better signposting to support are needed.

Contrary to the impression given by gloomy reports of family strife and rising divorce rates, academics at the University of Essex found that despite the stresses and disruption caused by COVID, families have largely been resilient, and there have been some positives for relationships.

To help them plan future services, Family Action, the national charity which provides practical, emotional and financial support to those in need, worked with Essex academics to develop a project to find out how family relationships had been affected by the pandemic.

Participants across the UK took part in two surveys, carried out in December 2020 and May this year, asking about conflict and communication within households both before and during COVID. Key themes were compared with existing video data about family relationships pre-COVID to explore where the impact of the pandemic on family life had been felt most.

Lockdown inevitably meant families spent more time together. This didn’t seem to change relationships between partners for better or worse, although women were more likely to say this had caused problems, while men tended to say it had had a positive impact. Generally people felt relationships with their children were better now than they had been at the beginning of 2020, and they were optimistic they would continue to improve, although those with teenagers reported less satisfaction than families with younger children.

Most respondents said lockdown had enabled them to spend more ‘quality’ time together – the definition of what ‘quality time’ meant changed somewhat, with participants agreeing the pandemic had made them realise sharing experiences – meals, activities and making new memories together – were important, while screen time was not.

Money, schooling and children’s behaviour remained the three major areas of stress throughout the pandemic, with those on low-incomes and those with children under five reporting significantly more serious conflicts. Early on in the pandemic work had been a major issue, but by May this year it was no longer a leading source of stress, suggesting families had largely adapted to working from home and had resolved work-life balance issues.

Respondents also reported being surprised by the love, strength, support and quality of their relationships and by how skilled their partners were at work and household chores.

The survey was led by Dr Veronica Lamarche from the Department of Psychology at Essex, whose previous research has examined how relationships are maintained over time and how romantic partners navigate vulnerability.

She said: “The really positive thing we found is COVID has generally not destroyed families. People have been really resilient and have largely been able to withstand the stresses and pressures without being crushed by the pandemic. In many cases relationships have actually improved.  Conflict during COVID was a normal occurrence for most families, but many have come out the other side feeling positively about their families. What’s important now is that we find out what external support families need  – whether it’s support for home schooling, financial help or counselling – to help them tap into, and benefit from, the strength they have within their own family. This will mean we are better prepared the next time there is a crisis.”

When asked about what the Government could do to help families, more support with home schooling, more job creation and financial support were the top answers, along with more help for single parents and better mental health support.

As a society, respondents felt we needed to be more positive, more tolerant of each other, and more willing to help those who need it most.

Before COVID-19 Dr Rebecca Clift, from the Department of Language and Linguistics at Essex, had carried out research into how families communicate, and this enabled the team to identify what had changed as a result of the pandemic.

Stacey Warren, Impact and Influencing Manager at Family Action, said: “The results from this project really demonstrate that whilst families often show resilience, they still need support to thrive. It is why it is so important that Government recovery strategies focus on the needs of families, and these findings will also really help us tailor our services to those needs. We already provide information and advice by telephone, text, email and web chat on many of the issues raised through our FamilyLine service, but this project with the University of Essex shows that many people still aren’t sure what support they can access nationally. We are also keen to support families to have quality time together, and the definitions people gave in this project will help us to tailor our resources, such as our free Creating Happy Memories pack for families.”

The project was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) through its Impact Acceleration Account (IAA), which aims to speed up the impact of research carried out by universities.

The Families at the front lines of COVID-19 report is available on the Family Action website.

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