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Parental Job Loss During COVID Puts Kids at Higher Risk of Abuse

A boy with brown hair and a red shirt sits at a brown desk sadly looking out the window.
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Key Takeaways

  • A new study reported that, of parents who lost their job due to the pandemic, 72.1% psychologically maltreated their children, and 37.2% physically abused them.
  • A lack of self-esteem, financial distress, depression, and alcohol abuse are among the potential factors for this link.
  • Children facing abuse can contact a helpline, talk to a trusted adult, pack a small bag of essentials, and create an exit plan to protect themselves from danger.

Parents are supposed to be a source of support and safety for children. However, during the pandemic, cases of the opposite occurring have risen. A new study published in The International Journal of Child Abuse & Neglect showed a link between a parent’s job loss during the pandemic and an increase in instances of child abuse.

Researchers gave questionnaires to 342 parents of children aged 4-10. Approximately 13% of adults surveyed lost their job due to the pandemic, a figure in line with about 15% of adults in the U.S. reporting the same.

According to the study, 72.1% of parents who lost their job during the pandemic psychologically mistreated their children, compared with 44.2% of parents who had kept their jobs. Furthermore, 37.2% of parents who lost their jobs physically abused their children, compared to 15.1% of parents who stayed employed. 

In 2015, an estimated 1,607 children died in the U.S. from abuse or neglect. In 78% of cases, the fatal abuse came from a parent, and 75% of children were under 3-years-old.

“COVID is hard on families, but for families facing normal COVID stresses and unemployment stresses, it's a perfect storm that just overwhelms them,” says Joseph Hoelscher, a managing attorney at Hoelscher Gebbia Cepeda PLLC with expertise in child protection. “Once a parent goes too far, the guilt and shame of that failure only makes things worse.”

Why Parental Job Loss Leads to Increased Child Abuse

Mental health professionals and advocates have seen an uptick in child abuse and neglect since the pandemic began. “We have seen a significant increase in physical abuse cases. This is primarily for children under the age of 2, but we have seen an increase overall,” says Melissa Hoppmeyer, chief of the special victims and family violence unit in Prince George's County, Maryland, and the co-founder of Right Response Consulting.

“What is significant about these cases is that the abuse is worse than we were typically seeing and is ongoing, and in many of these cases, the doctors are clinically diagnosing the injuries as torture.”

Increased Stress and Problems with Mental Health

There are many reasons experts believe may be to blame for the current increase in child abuse. “Familial discord has significantly increased, and many dyadic relationships are suffering due to stress caused by job loss and monetary concerns,” says Dr. Leela R. Magavi, a Johns Hopkins-trained adult, adolescent, and child psychiatrist and regional medical director for Community Psychiatry, California's largest outpatient mental health organization. She notes that many of her adult patients have divorced in recent months. 

A lack of self-worth and an increase in mental health distress for parents can increase the risk of child abuse. “With the relentless economic downturn stemming from the novel coronavirus, parents may be less able to manage their frustration, low mood, anger, and irritability and may respond at times in a concerning way towards their children,” says Davina Tiwari, MSW, RSW, CSFT, a social worker at Choosing Therapy. 

Leela R. Magavi, MD

"Depression and anxiety caused by job loss can manifest as irritability and impulsivity, which may increase the frequency and severity of abuse."

— Leela R. Magavi, MD

Magavi concurs: “Depression and anxiety caused by job loss can manifest as irritability and impulsivity, which may increase the frequency and severity of abuse.”

Unrealistic Expectations

If a parent is holding their child to an unattainable standard, not understanding of their own pandemic-induced struggles, or unwilling to accept why their child may be acting certain ways during the pandemic—such as depressed themselves—child abuse may occur. “This is particularly easy to trigger if the parent struggles with diminished self-worth and high stress,” says Forrest Talley, PhD, a psychologist at Invictus Psychological Services with experience working with abused and neglected children.

Talley continues, “The loss of a job frequently results in greater stress and a battered sense of self-worth. Parents who already have unrealistic expectations of their child, and a distorted sense of their child's motives for 'misbehaving,' become much more likely to abuse that child.” 

Financial Distress

As for the financial distress that comes with losing your job, Hoppmeyer believes it’s a contributing factor but not the sole reason for abuse. “Financial stresses can cause the abuse to worsen, and I think that is what we have seen, that these parents or caretakers were already abusive, but the financial strain exacerbated the abuse. It’s like these kids are their punching bags to take out all their stress,” says Hoppmeyer.

In the Child Abuse & Neglect study, parents who had psychologically or physically abused their children in the past were much more likely to do so post-job loss than parents who never had.

Increase in Substance Abuse

Higher alcohol intake during the pandemic is another possible factor. In a recent study of 1,540 adults aged 30-59 published in The JAMA Network Open, alcohol consumption had a reported increase of 14% overall and 17% in women, compared with last year. There was also a 41% increase in heavy drinking by women surveyed.

“Many adults I evaluate have either started drinking alcohol or are drinking increased amounts of alcohol to self-medicate and alleviate anxiety caused by the uncertainties of this year,” says Magavi. “Some parents explain to me that alcohol numbs the emotional pain they have experienced due to familial discord, financial stress, and self-confidence concerns. However, while inebriated, parents are more likely to verbally and physically abuse their children, and this can become a vicious cycle.”

The Difficulty of Fighting Child Abuse During The Pandemic 

With children essentially trapped at home with their abuser during the pandemic, they have fewer opportunities to seek help or, at the very least, a reprieve from the abuse. “What we have seen is similar to other jurisdictions around the country, we have seen a decrease in child sexual abuse reports,” says Hoppmeyer. “This is directly related to the fact that children are stuck at home with their abusers, and mandatory reporters like teachers do not see and engage with their students in person.

"This lowers the probability of reporting by the child and therefore by the mandatory reporter to Child Protective Services and the police.” While physical abuse may be visible to others, sexual abuse is unlikely to be. 

To create easier access for children to receive help, jurisdictions such as Hoppmeyer’s have created online campaigns that allow for abuse disclosures. 

At the same time, resources to report and fight child abuse have suffered due to the pandemic. “Where a child welfare expert might normally be able to intervene early in a family in crisis, we're being contacted later and struggling to provide resources quickly,” says Hoelscher. 

What A Child Can Do If A Parent is Abusing Them

While the pandemic has made the process of escaping abuse more difficult, it is not impossible. If you are a child facing abuse by a parent, these are the steps you can take to get help. 

Realize You Are Not To Blame

Taking action, especially as a dependent, is incredibly scary, but acknowledging that you are in no way to blame for the abuse can help you gather the strength to do so. “I remind my adolescent trauma survivors that they are not alone and that feelings of shame and guilt after enduring trauma are normal,” says Magavi. She recommends paying attention to your strength and creating lists of reasons why you are not to blame and reading them out loud to yourself.

Tell A Trusted Adult

Whether it be a neighbor, friend’s parent, family member, or teacher, a trusted adult can help you navigate this incredibly challenging situation. Try to be as honest with them as you can about the problem and that you are being harmed. There’s no reason you should have to face this alone or with other young siblings, and an adult ally can help.

Contact A Helpline

Whether you’re nervous about speaking to a known adult or want help from a trained professional, many organizations are available to provide informational support, counseling, and emotional care. Some resources to consider are:

Keep A Bag of Essentials Packed

If you think you will need to escape to someone else’s home at some point for safety, Talley recommends keeping a discreet, small bag of essentials—such as toothpaste or an ID if you have one—packed. “In the middle of an abusive incident, there is no time to put such items together,” says Talley. Place it somewhere in your room that the abusive parent should not be able to see it.

Forrest Talley, PhD

Keep a discreet, small bag of essentials—such as toothpaste or an ID if you have one—packed. “In the middle of an abusive incident, there is no time to put such items together."

— Forrest Talley, PhD

Create An Exit Plan 

When possible, speaking to an adult about where you can go if you need to leave can help you prepare if the time comes. “What this means is identifying trustworthy adults to whom they can turn, and with whom they may be able to reside if the risk of abuse becomes high,” says Talley. “If possible, they should make a list of names, addresses, and contact phone numbers.” Try to keep this list in your essentials bag and on your person, such as in your phone, so you have it available for quick access.

If you can, download a rideshare app like Uber and pick a spot at least several blocks from your house to be picked up by the driver.

How To Help A Child Being Abused

Whether a child admits to you that they are being abused or you have reason to be suspicious, you can take action. If you have any relationship with the child, you can try talking to them about your suspicions. Even opening up the conversation with prompts about how they’re doing and how they feel being at home can provide them the opportunity to open up to you.

If you are willing and able, mention that they can come to stay with you if ever needed. Wearing masks and getting a coronavirus test can be a small price to pay for a child’s safety. 

If you are far away, unable to directly help, or the child isn’t opening up to you, another option is reaching out to Child Protective Services. “When any child or adolescent is in danger, or I have reason to believe that he or she is unsafe at home, I address these concerns immediately and contact Child Protective Services,” says Magavi. “It is absolutely my duty to protect children, and I will report any misconduct immediately and do whatever is in my power to help.”

What This Means for You

The coronavirus pandemic has been a time of isolation, disconnection, and fear, and a conversation around the spike in child abuse and increased resources are needed to combat it. If you or a child you know is being abused don't hesitate to call the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline: 1-800-4-A-Child or 1-800-422-4453 24/7 support.

— What This Means for You

As Hoppmeyer says, “Child Abuse thrives on silence, it thrives on darkness, and by having tough conversations, we can work towards ending the abuse.”

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Article Sources
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  1. Lawson M, Piel MH, Simon M. Child Maltreatment during the COVID-19 Pandemic: Consequences of Parental Job Loss on Psychological and Physical Abuse Towards Children. Child Abuse & Neglect. December 2020. doi:10.1016/j.chiabu.2020.104709

  2. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Administration on Children, Youth & Families, Children's Bureau. Child maltreatment 2015. Updated 2017.

  3. Michael S. Pollard PD. Changes in Adult Alcohol Use and Consequences During the COVID-19 Pandemic in the US. JAMA Network Open. Published September 29, 2020. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.22942