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For Some Kids, Increase in Household Stress Could Be COVID-19's Biggest Threat

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Hansa Bhargava, MD - Blogs
By Hansa D. Bhargava, MDBoard-certified pediatricianApril 16, 2020
From the WebMD Archives

I was a bit worried that something didn’t seem right when I examined Kassi, a 5-month-old baby, who had been brought into the ER with a broken arm. Her parents seemed wonderful, and they were very co-operative, but their story that she had simply “fallen wrong” from a sitting position didn’t make sense. I did more digging and learned that a recent job loss had increased the stress level in the home dramatically – tensions were running high. Ultimately, we learned that Kassi’s arm broke when her Dad, who was very stressed out from his job loss, yanked her arm too hard one day when Kassi wouldn’t stop crying.

This story has been running through my mind as the COVID-19 pandemic has been unfolding. We know that an increase in financial, relational, and health-related stress increases the risk for child abuse. And COVID-19 has brought unprecedented levels of stress for all of us. For some, it’s adjusting to being constantly at home, trying to work from home while homeschooling children, or being older and isolated due to fears of getting the infection. For others, the situation is even worse – job loss, financial uncertainty, living in crowded situations, or within a bad relationship. This pressure cooker can inevitably lead to lashing out on the most vulnerable, the children in the household.

So what can we do to help these stressed out families where kids may be at risk? If you know of a family who may be under stress from job loss or other pressures, here are a few suggestions:

  1. Do they need any help with meals? Can you pick up food for them when you go to the grocery store? Can you drop off a meal? Some schools are offering meals to kids who are on the meal program during the school year.
  2. If you are daycare teacher, community leader or organizer, is there a way to provide virtual childcare? Whether its reading stories or doing silly crafts, any help for childcare can help for parents in these circumstances.
  3. Can you be a virtual friend? Often, just venting can help relieve some stress. If you have a friend who is a parent of young children, check in on them regularly via text or Facetime. It can really help.

If you suspect a child is getting abused, reach out to authorities. A child who is subject to violence may get withdrawn and not want to talk, they may have injuries that don’t make sense, or may not want to come out of their home. With social distancing, what you see and hear from a troubled child may be limited, but if you are worried, call the police or Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline (1-800-4AChild). They will know what to do to make sure that the child is safe.

And if you are a stressed parent yourself, remember, it is SO important to take care of yourself. This means not just taking time to eat, but actually taking the time to de-stress by calling a friend or family member, taking a walk if there is a safe area, and even taking just a few minutes to take a time out to breathe. Getting enough sleep is really important as is taking some screen free time. There are some good resources on parenting during these times as well: Child Mind Institute does regular Facebook Live events with tips, and the American Academy of Pediatrics has parenting tips too. If anxiety or stress is too much, reach out to the Crisis Text Line to contact a professional quickly (text “HOME” to 741741). You can also always reach out to your doctor or a mental health professional - most are doing telemedicine visits and you can talk to them from home.

Remember, while we need to practice physical distancing right now, all of us need social closeness to help us get through these stressful times. Don’t forget to reach out if you need help.



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About the Author
Hansa D. Bhargava, MD

Hansa Bhargava, MD, is a medical editor and WebMD's expert pediatrician. She oversees the team of medical experts responsible for ensuring the accuracy and credibility of the pediatric content on the site.

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