Ontario Parent Survey reveals troubling trends

HAMILTON, ON — McMaster University and Offord Centre for Child Studies researchers have released the results of a province-wide online survey, the Ontario Parent Survey.

The purpose of study, which was conducted between May 5 and June 19, is to help understand what families with children are experiencing in the context of COVID-19, and what services families and caregivers may need. The Survey is part of a larger intervention study funded by the Public Health Agency of Canada created to promote positive parenting practices and improve child outcomes. The survey was completed by 7,434 caregivers/parents, representing over 14,000 children.

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The most significant and troubling findings show almost 60 per cent of caregivers/parents meet the criteria for depression, and 40 per cent of caregivers/parents reported deterioration in their children’s behaviour or mood. Survey participants also reported high levels of conflict with their partner since the lockdown began, and just over one-third reported some loss of income. The study’s findings are summarized under five themes: 1) caregiver mental health; 2) children’s mental health; 3) impact on family relations; 4) impact on financial needs; and 5) positive experiences.

“The most surprising results are the extremely high levels of depression among caregivers and parents, and that children are faring worse since the pandemic started,” says lead researcher Andrea Gonzalez, Associate Professor and Tier II Canada Research Chair in Family Health and Preventive Interventions. “We knew it was obviously a stressful situation for families, but the study’s numbers are staggering. However, despite these concerning numbers, it was a good to see positive aspects — people are going out more and spending more family time together. But it does raise some concerns about what may happen if a second wave comes in the winter and we go into lockdown once again.”

Caregivers/parents revealed specific stressors were related to work – having lost work, and balancing work and childcare and working more hours now. Financial stressors related to loss of work, and the inability to visit family or get support from family. And there was serious concern about working on the frontlines or returning to work and exposing family to the virus.

Caregivers/parents also provided written statements about concerns on the social impact of isolation on their children, and their kids missing friends and regular interactions and activities. They worry about the return to school and regular routines, and how their children will cope having been isolated for so long. Parents also expressed concern about their kids falling behind in school and how this will affect their lifelong trajectories. Many wrote about children’s specific anxieties – returning to school and separation from parents, concerns about getting sick, wearing masks and interacting ‘normally’ again with friends.

“Parents highlighted specific concerns about losses in learning – and the need to be innovative in our approaches to assist children and families with remote learning and school needs,” says Gonzalez. “When the lockdown first hit, many schools and teachers were under tremendous pressure to quickly pivot and pull together distance learning packages. Hopefully, we have learned something that can help inform future steps and programming if needed. People need help and the longer this pandemic goes on, the less sustainable it is, and the harder it will be for people to cope.”

The research team is now sharing its findings with key partners in public health, and child and youth mental health agencies, and trying to strategize ways to support families remotely. They are planning a follow-up survey with families who provided contact information for future research. Among their concerns, the team is really interested in how families are faring throughout the summer and how they feel about schools reopening. What does this mean for parents, families, government, and community support groups?

“Families are clearly stressed and struggling,” says Gonzalez. “If a second wave does come, we need to be better prepared to support them. There need to be more options for online support for families (coping), children to assist with anxieties and other mental health concerns, as well as ways to allow kids to communicate with friends and social groups if we are in lockdown again.”

The Offord Centre for Child Studies is a multi-disciplinary research institute established in 1992. Through collaboration across fields such as child psychiatry, psychology, epidemiology, pediatrics, policy development, social work, and nursing, the Centre’s aim is to better understand children’s mental health problems with the overall goal of improving the lives of children and youth.