Child wellbeing during the COVID pandemic: Parental concerns
Families in Australia Survey report
Jennifer Baxter, Tracy Evans-Whipp
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Many children's lives were disrupted during the COVID-19 pandemic. In Australia, in 2021, this was most apparent in NSW, Victoria and the ACT, where extended lockdowns meant children often spent weeks or months in remote learning, which had implications for engagement in education as well as social connections.
Even beyond these jurisdictions, the impacts of COVID-19 were experienced by many parents and children. Border closures separated family members from one another, and concerns about the impacts of the virus were widespread.
This mixed-methods research report explores parents' concerns about their children's wellbeing during the pandemic, using the fourth Families in Australia Survey, which was conducted in November-December 2021. It draws on more than 2,000 parents' ratings of their concerns about a range of dimensions of child wellbeing: educational engagement, mental health, physical health, connection to family and connection to peers and friends.
The report explores the varied impacts of COVID-19 on children of all ages below 18 years, and also delves into the experiences of families and the factors that parents say contributed to their children's wellbeing.
Around one in 10 survey respondents reported being extremely concerned about their child's wellbeing during the pandemic. Concerns were most prevalent for teenaged children.
Periods of remote learning longer than three months were strongly associated with higher concerns across all domains. However, after accounting for remote learning differences, being in a more COVID-affected state was not associated with higher concerns.
Parents of children with additional needs reported increased challenges with maintaining their children's wellbeing.
Parents' own mental health and wider family stresses also were impacted by the pandemic, which in turn impacted their ratings of their children's mental health.
Concerns about children's wellbeing during the pandemic
From early in the pandemic, child health experts (e.g. Benner & Mistry, 2020) raised concerns about the possible damaging impacts of the pandemic on the mental health and developmental potential of children.
While the direct effects of the virus on children have been relatively mild, the public health responses aimed at curbing the spread of the virus have had wide-ranging effects on children. Public health measures included school closures, restrictions on social interactions and termination of organised activities, all of which resulted in major changes to family routines.
Existing research documents the varied impacts of the restrictions on children, including impacts on educational engagement, mental health and physical wellbeing. Such findings are related to children's experiences of remote learning, isolation and loneliness.
Remote learning and educational engagement
In Australia, schools and families initially had to adapt to remote learning with little or no preparation time (Drane, Vernon, & O'Shea, 2020; Li et al., 2022). According to a survey conducted in May 2020, early in the pandemic, over a half of parents with school-aged children that were learning remotely said their children were having difficulties concentrating, a half said the children were feeling lonely, and a third said their children were experiencing anxiety (Australian Bureau of Statistics [ABS], 2020). In a November 2020 national survey, almost half of Australian parents had concerns about the impact of COVID-19 disruptions on their child's learning, with higher likelihood of concern seen among parents from Victoria (Biddle, Edwards, Gray, & Sollis, 2020). The switch to remote learning led to concerns about the potential impacts on students' educational engagement and learning outcomes, as well as their mental health and wellbeing (e.g. Fahey, 2021).
Physical and mental health
Changes arising from the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns and restrictions have had broad-ranging impacts on child physical and mental health (see Goldfeld et al., 2022). Restrictions to families' outdoor physical pastimes and exercise (Baxter, Budinski, Carroll, & Hand, 2020), the cessation of school and community sport and the switch to remote learning resulted in decreases in physical activity and increased screen time (Munasinghe et al., 2020; Olive et al., 2022; Rhodes, 2020) and changes to sleep patterns (Olive et al., 2022; Rhodes, 2020) and diet (Munasinghe et al., 2020; Rhodes, 2020).
These negative impacts on physical health have been directly linked to child and adolescent mental wellbeing during the pandemic (Munasinghe et al., 2020; Olive et al., 2022). For example, the higher levels of sleep problems and irregular bedtimes observed among children aged from 2 to 18 years during the early phase of the pandemic were associated with indicators of poorer mental health such as depression, anxiety and irritability (Olive et al., 2022).
In addition to the risk posed by declines in physical health, child mental health has been strongly affected by psychological and environmental stressors arising during the pandemic. Such stressors include being worried about the virus, being isolated from others, and being affected by remote schooling, loss of employment or housing or financial stress.
Reports from Australian parents in mid-2020 showed that the majority (77%) said their child aged 1-5 years missed their friends and extended family (De Young et al., 2020) and almost half of a sample of 3-18 year olds (46%) experienced loneliness (Rhodes, 2020). The negative impacts of the pandemic on the mental health of children and young people (as reported by parents) were apparent from different data collections and many have shown that the impacts were more severe for children in the more COVID-affected states.
One survey tracked over 2,000 Australian parents' reports of their child's mental wellbeing across 14 time points between April 2020 and May 2021. Children were aged up to 18 years. Compared to other Australian states, the study found worse trajectories of child mental health symptoms for children in Victoria, where a second lockdown had occurred in July-October 2020 (Westrupp, Greenwood et al., 2021). In studies that ask older children and adolescents to report on their own mental healthm many have indicated deteriorating mental health since the pandemic began. For example, in a study of 760 Australians aged 12-18 years conducted in June-August 2020, 75% reported a negative effect of the pandemic on their mental health (Li et al., 2022).
Early recognition of the potential impacts on young people's mental health saw a focus on mental health services in the COVID-19 responses, and the heightened demand for these services was apparent as the pandemic progressed (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare [AIHW], 2022).
Family strains and stresses
According to established theories of family functioning (Masarik & Conger, 2017), strains and stresses experienced by parents during the pandemic are likely to mean parents have decreased caregiving capacity and stressed relationships, which in turn impacts child development and wellbeing. Of course, COVID-19 related impacts varied across different families, and many parents have reported that they have experienced improvements in family relationships since COVID-19. Rhodes (2020), for example, found that in June 2020, 75% of parents had reported that their family had become closer and 42% said they were more connected to their child.
However, declines in parent wellbeing have been observed in studies since the start of the pandemic, as summarised in the review by Goldfeld and colleagues (2022). For example, Melbourne Institute's Pulse of the Nation study found that parents' mental distress rose sharply in the first few months of the pandemic, when put beside comparable data collected in 2017 (Broadway, Mendez, & Moschion, 2020). Similarly, a community survey of over 2,000 Australian parents in April 2020 found that scores for self-rated mental health were substantially lower than for comparable data collected from Australian parents in the 10 years prior to the pandemic (Westrupp et al., 2021). High levels of depression, anxiety and stress were similarly observed in May-July 2020 in a sample of parents of children aged five years and younger (De Young et al., 2020).
The study by Evans and colleagues (2020) highlighted that parents were particularly concerned about their children's mental health when they were struggling with their own mental health. Parents have voiced concerns about the impact of their deteriorating mental health on that of their children, with early studies demonstrating a link between them. For example, parent mental ill-health was found to be related to youth mental health in a sample of 4-17-year-old Australians in May-Nov 2020, the initial stages of the pandemic (Sicouri et al., 2021).
Families in Australia Survey findings
This report uses data from the fourth Families in Australia Survey, conducted by the Australian Institute of Family Studies in November-December 2021.1
The survey asked about the experiences of families during the pandemic. The 2,144 survey respondents who lived with one or more of their children aged under 18 years were asked a series of questions about their child's wellbeing in the domains of education, physical health, mental health, connection to friends and peers, and connections with family (respondents reported on one child only). An open-response question about the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on their parenting and/or their children's wellbeing was answered by 819 respondents. (See the appendix for further details about the survey questions and analytic approach taken.)
The findings presented below combine the quantitative and qualitative results in a mixed-methods approach to provide a rich and comprehensive picture of the lives of parents, children and families in the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic.
1 The online survey's nearly 6,000 participants were recruited through the media, social media, newsletters, internet advertising and word of mouth. All Australians aged 18 and over were eligible to participate. Relative to the Australian population, the research sample over-represents females and those who are tertiary educated. It under-represents young people. See the appendix for further details about the survey methodology and sample.
Factors relevant to child wellbeing
One of the very significant disruptions for some children in 2020-21 was that of schools moving to remote home-based learning for durations that differed across states and territories. This dramatically changed the learning experience, as well as the opportunities for connection to teachers, friends and peers (see more on this below).
For some children, remote learning also meant a cancellation of sporting activities and loss of opportunities for responsibilities that had been anticipated as part of school life.
Parents' reports about how much time their child spent in remote learning are summarised in Figure 1, by state and territory. As expected, the remote learning experience was much more apparent in NSW, Victoria and the ACT, where only a small proportion of children had only face-to-face learning in 2021. Time spent remote learning was greater in Victoria compared to the other states. There were also small proportions of children in the less COVID-affected states that spent significant lengths of time in remote learning. This most likely is due to children who are usually home-schooled or in distance learning, or children who spent time in other states.
Figure 1: Months spent remote learning in 2021, by state or territory
Note: Refers to time spent remote learning for one randomly selected under 18-year-old child in the family. Children under 3 years and children not in any formal learning are excluded.
Figure 2 shows that issues around remote learning applied especially to children aged between about six and 17 years in the more COVID-affected states.2 This is not surprising, since many younger children (aged three to five years) who attended early childhood education and care services were able to continue attending these services through the pandemic. Secondary school-aged children (13-17 years), were most likely to be affected, being more likely to spend four or more months remote learning than primary school-aged children (6-12 years).
Figure 2: Months spent remote learning in 2021 by child age and state/territory COVID impacts
Note: Refers to time spent remote learning for one randomly selected under 18-year-old child in the family. Children aged under three years and children not in any formal learning are excluded. 'More COVID-affected states/territories' are NSW, Victoria and the ACT.
Other COVID-19 restrictions
The lockdowns within parts of Australia also resulted in disruption to children's extracurricular activities, including visits and unstructured play, and sporting and other organised activities. While parents sometimes commented favourably on the 'slowing down' of life due to the lack of such activities, they often recognised that children themselves missed them for physical activity and/or the social connections. See also Baxter and colleagues (2020).
The home environment, parental strains and mental health
A critical contextual factor for children's wellbeing is the family home. Many parents were themselves impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, with working at home becoming a feature for many families. Some parents (such as essential workers) were affected by increased work pressures, others by job losses, and some experienced financial strains. Parents were therefore managing their own stresses in addition to supporting their children's wellbeing and remote learning.
Participants were asked to rate their own mental health. Overall, 6.5% of parents rated their mental health as 'excellent', 14% as 'very good', 27% as 'good', 35% as 'fair' and 15% as 'poor' (2% skipped the question).
Specifically in relation to working at home and children's remote learning, many parents in the Families in Australia Survey indicated they had found the juggle that ensued extremely challenging. Some found it impossible to support their children's remote learning given other responsibilities.
I was very lucky not to lose my job through this time. I had to devote so much time to helping my son re-engage in education, catch up on missed school work, manage his depression, anxiety, aggression and behavioural difficulties. We are now trying to avoid school refusal as he is having difficulty adjusting to being back at school. It was overwhelming for me and I did not keep up with my workload. Once things settled a bit, I enjoyed having him at home. We had some fun times. I enjoyed working from home.
Parent of child 15 years, State/Territory unspecified
While we were home learning, I was responsible for the children's learning. I am a primary school teacher, so this made sense. But I also had my own job to do (I actually have two jobs). It meant I was getting up at 4am and working until 7am when I fed the children breakfast. Then getting my own work done until almost 9am when I got the children settled into their work. I supervised all three children (in differenct rooms/spaces because this worked best for them), while also completing my own work. My husband felt that he couldn't do his work as well as supervise the children, and simply refused to do it. I did my own work during 'lunch hour' and then worked from 3-6pm, and again after dinner and once the children were in bed. It was an exhausting routine and I felt extremely unsupported.
Parent of three children between 4 and 9 years, NSW
The education experience was disjointed and disconnected. There was additional pressure on myself as not only did I have increased roles and pressure, no one else in the house did. E.g. I still had to work, look after kids, study, clean, cook, educate children, attend therapy sessions, etc. but there was additional cooking and cleaning with everyone home all the time. There was also an extra expectation of keeping the kids quiet while my husband worked.
Parent of children 13 and 14 years, NSW
Others indicated the mental load of managing everything was a struggle. Some parents noted that they had experienced strains in family relationships.
Home schooling and working at the same time had a detrimental effect on relationships in the family.
Parent of children 7 and 10 years, Victoria
Motivation was the biggest issue. Kids didn't want to do school, go for exercise, get dressed, shower, anything. I didn't want to have to motivate them to do those things but that is my job as a parent. I got tired of fighting all the time to get anyone to do anything. I also got tired of having to think of activities for everyone to do all the time.
Parent of children 6 and 9 years, Victoria
Single parents commented about their added challenge of managing employment and remote learning, and other aspects of children's wellbeing, without the support of a partner.
As a solo parent who works in health care it can feel overwhelming during times of lockdown and online learning. There is the increased work stress and various stress with clients but then coming home there is the need to ensure children are both physically and mentally coping with lockdown and school work. As a solo parent there is no escape from that stress during these periods of COVID lockdown and restrictions.
Parent of three children between 13 and 17 years, Queensland
We heard from a number of parents of children with additional needs in the Families in Australia Survey, whose children were reported to have varied experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns. The wellbeing of these children was sometimes affected by constraints on access to services in addition to other impacts of lockdowns.
My children have complex medical needs and disabilities and access to services was very difficult causing risks to them due to delayed treatment.
Parent of children 6 and 8 years, Tasmania
Coming in and out of lockdowns has caused significant educational, mental and social issues with one of our children who is autistic.
Parent of four children between one year and 14 years, Victoria
It was clear from the parents' comments (summarised in sections below) that there were different factors that contributed to children's wellbeing and to parents' experiences of parenting during the pandemic. To some extent this related to the varied family circumstances, with some families feeling well connected and resourced, and others feeling stretched, strained and unsupported.
Even within individual families, there were reports of differences in siblings' wellbeing.
Almost opposites - daughter very committed to home-school work, but always thinking she is not doing enough or failing; son who is bright, had very little motivation to do anything.
Parent of children 9 and 12 years, NSW
Whereas the mental health of one child improved due to lockdown, the other two boys spiralled. My youngest was very negatively impacted and has lost all confidence in himself and is finding it very hard to re-engage with school, even though prior to the pandemic he loved school.
Parent of three children 10 to 13 years, NSW
2 In states that went to a remote learning model, face-to-face learning was usually still available to children in particular circumstances, such as children whose parents were essential workers.
Parental concerns: Broad findings
This section provides an overview of parents' concerns about their children's wellbeing. We explore individual domains of concern in detail below (see 'Concerns by domain of wellbeing') but it was apparent that parents also saw links between the different domains. For example, an often-reported theme was parents reporting they were prioritising their children's mental health over their education. Others connected the restrictions' impact on physical health to concerns about impacts on mental health.
We were also concerned about worsening his mental health if we push too hard. He was still reasonably physically active, ate ok and shared dinner at the table so we let school work drift.
Parent of children 13 and 15 years, Victoria
Concerns increase with children's age and by severity of restrictions
Parents' responses about their concerns for children's wellbeing are shown in Figure 3. Figure 4 extends this to show there were differences in parents' concerns by age of child, and there are differences in reports of concerns for those parents residing in the more COVID-affected states and territories of NSW, Victoria and the ACT relative to the other states and territories.
While there were parents who expressed concerns about the wellbeing of their children, Figure 3 shows that some parents reported that their children were faring well. Between 40%-50% of parents in the Families in Australia Survey were 'not at all concerned' about their children's educational engagement, their physical health or their connection to family. Although smaller proportions of parents were not at all concerned about their child's mental health or connection to friends, the proportion was still substantial, at around 30%.
For each of the aspects of child wellbeing, a large proportion of parents (around a quarter) reported being 'slightly concerned'. Even for children in the more COVID-affected states, some of the parents were not concerned or only slightly concerned (see Figure 4).
Although we are in Melbourne and spent a lot of time in lock down and home schooling and working, I think we came out of it fairly well compared with some other families, particularly in terms of my son's mental health. He maintained connection with friends online and although it was a challenge, I dropped the boundaries and limits on screen time (when usually strict) because it was essential for him to connect with his friends in that way.
Parent of child 13 years, Victoria
My kids adapted exceptionally well to remote learning and lockdown in Sydney. It was difficult for me at times to juggle full-time working from home and school; however, we got through. I enjoyed spending the time as family together and have welcomed our return to the new normal.
Parent of children 11 and 13 years, NSW
Figure 3: Parents' concerns about child wellbeing, by domain
Note: Parents' reports of concerns for one randomly selected under 18-year-old child in the family.
Concerns increase with a child's time in remote learning
The detailed breakdown in Figure 4 shows that:
- Parents' concerns about engagement with education showed a clear child-age gradient, with concerns much more likely for older children.
- For each measure and each age group (with just a few exceptions), parents expressed more concerns in the more COVID-affected states.
- At each age above the 0-2 years group, the proportion indicating they had no concerns was higher in the states that had not experienced significant lockdowns.
- The concerns about connection to family were only slightly less for those in the states less affected by COVID. This likely reflects that domestic and international border closures affected contact with family and maintaining family connections, regardless of which Australian state they resided in.
Compared to those who had only face-to-face learning, significant differences were not apparent for those who spent less than three months in remote learning, indicating that periods of remote learning greater than three months were associated with heightened concerns.
Figure 4: Parents' concerns about child wellbeing by child age and state/territory COVID impacts
Notes: Parents' reports of concerns for one randomly selected under 18-year-old child in the family. 'Very' and 'extremely' were combined to improve readability. 'More COVID-affected states/territories' are NSW, Victoria and the ACT.
The multivariate analysis (presented in the appendix) investigates parents' concerns while taking a range of factors into account and further indicates that it is not the experience of being in a more COVID-affected state that is associated with wellbeing but rather it is the duration of remote learning.
Parental concerns by amount of remote learning are shown in Figure 5.
Figure 5: Parents' concerns about child wellbeing by amount of remote learning (children 6-17 years)
Note: Parents' reports of concerns for one randomly selected child between 6 and 17 years of age.
Concerns increase when parents experience poor mental health
In the earlier discussion of factors related to child wellbeing we noted that parental mental health is expected to impact child mental health. This is borne out in Figure 6, which shows a strong relationship between parents' self-reported mental health and their ratings of concern about children's wellbeing.
The multivariate analysis (see appendix) shows that, even when other factors are taken into account, poorer self-reported mental health was associated with a higher rating of concerns across each of the domains.
Figure 6: Parents' concerns about child wellbeing by parents' self-reported mental health
Note: Parents' reports of concerns for one randomly selected under 18-year-old child in the family.
Concerns lingered after the easing of restrictions
At the time of the survey, at the end of 2021, restrictions were easing in parts of Australia and some children were going back to learning at school. This was reflected in comments by parents who had begun to see these changes flow through to children. Improvements in children's wellbeing were noted.
I was extremely worried about most of the things in the check-list above towards the end of the Sydney lockdown. But I think my child has 'bounced back' quite well since schools and restrictions on movement have lifted.
Parent of children 8 and 13 years, NSW
This was not universal, however, with others expressing concern for the long-term impacts on children through the disruption to education and social connections.
The kids will recover from missing out on peer contact, but I'm not convinced they will recover from the lost learning.
Parent of three children 13 to 17 years, Victoria
I worry about the future implications of many months of remote learning will have on my child's future ... I'm very concerned of the ramifications it may hold for my child's mental health, school achievement.
Parent of children 12 and 16 years, Victoria
COVID-19 had a major impact on my child's connections with friends, peers and family members. These connections are now being rebuilt but I expect it will take time.
Parent of child 1 year, NSW
My three year old has spent most of her life living in pandemic conditions. I do worry about the impact of this on her ability to connect with adults outside her immediate family.
Parent of children 3 and 6 years, Queensland
Concerns by domain of wellbeing
This section discusses parents' concerns about each of five domains of wellbeing:
- engagement with education
- physical health
- mental health
- connection to friends and peers
- connection to family.
Engagement with education
As discussed above (see 'Broad findings'), parents' concerns about engagement with education showed a clear child-age gradient, with concerns much more likely for older children (Figure 4). This was also apparent in the parents' comments, with parents of teenagers especially likely to provide comments about their challenges or concerns over their child's educational engagement. The findings earlier also showed more concerns among parents of children who had spent longer in remote learning. In fact, parents' comments that touched on children's education were almost all related to the impacts of remote learning. Some commented on how their children had responded to remote learning, some about how they themselves managed or felt about the remote learning, some about children's learning in or after this context, and some about post-lockdown fears or experiences.
In relation to comments about how children themselves had responded to restrictions, the reports were quite polarised, although more made negative remarks. Most were about children's disengagement and lack of focus.
My expectations regarding education have fallen significantly. We are in Victoria so by lockdown 5.0 the priority was mental health over academics. Was hard though as my oldest is in year 11. Both children struggled with motivation to do remote learning, particularly this year.
Parent of children 14 and 16 years, Victoria
[15-year-old] also started disengaging from the classes, turning off his camera and not doing the work in the class time. This has been really hard to navigate as we work full-time and have another child remote learning too.
Parent of children 13 and 15 years, Victoria
Remote learning was a disaster. My son lost all interest in engaging in the remote learning activities and just wanted to sleep all day.
Parent of children 6 and 9 years, Victoria
I found my 6 year old became disinterested in learning, where she had really enjoyed it at school.
Parent of children 3 and 6 years, state unspecified
While most referred to the online learning environment as the major challenge, there were links between this and other views on children's isolation and mental health, such that educational engagement was not entirely separate as an element of wellbeing.
Increased anxiety and social isolation impacted negatively on school attendance during peak COVID times.
Parent of child 16 years and older child/children, Queensland
Parents who made more positive remarks tended to indicate that the online environment suited their child (or children) and/or felt this was facilitated well by the teachers or school.
We found that the schools were much better at online learning this year than they were last year, and we know that all of our children continued to learn well and be engaged with their education.
Parent of three children 12 to 17 years, NSW
He thrived with home learning. Quit once he had to go back to school.
Parent of child 16 years, Queensland
Some parents reported to have changed their expectations for their child's education as a consequence of the remote learning and COVID-19 experience. A number indicated that they accepted their children would not do so well in education given the remote schooling environment, and some had concerns about this. This was not always because of their child's engagement with the online approach but was sometimes about a view that the curriculum was not adequately meeting the needs of their child. There were specific concerns about the reliance on screens.
How much he's been challenged with school is our worry, he's coasted along for over a year and what has he actually learnt?
Parent of child 14 years, Victoria
The public school system doesn't differentiate learning based on individual needs and interests. This means my child is bored at school and is not encouraged to question or extend. Online/remote learning was even more standardised not allowing for any context or deep learning to occur.
Parent of child 6 years, Queensland
We have some concerns about our older child's literacy and numeracy skills having learned at home for much of the year. We also have concerns about the reliance on screens for education and how this might increase in the future.
Parent of children 3 and 6 years, state unspecified
… my children's learning has suffered considerably and I worry about my eldest and his year 12 results and his ability to move to tertiary education. He has missed many rights of passage for year 12, which he will never get back. My year 10 son has almost failed his way into year 11 and it has been challenging to motivate him through out COVID.
Parent of child 15 years, and older child/children, Victoria
In terms of the positives for parents themselves, a number of survey participants commented on their appreciation of building a connection with children's education by being involved with the remote learning.
Remote learning allowed me to understand more about what the kids are learning and the areas that my son was struggling with. It showed be about setting boundaries between school and work and home life.
Parent of child 5 years, ACT
It was also nice to be more engaged with the kids' learning and see what they were working on, what they found challenging and where they thrived.
Parent of children 5 and 7 years, ACT
This involvement was not within reach of all parents, and a common response by parents was their relating feelings of stress or of guilt that they did not have the time to help children with their learning. Some reported having experienced significant strain in attempting to support children's education, while also maintaining a focus on their own employment.
It's gotten harder to manage work and remote learning, especially with a 12 year old who didn't want to do the work :) I have been less likely to really check closely how much work has been done as time has gone on.
Parent of children 12 and 13 years, Victoria
I cannot work from home so felt guilt about not being able to be home for my children when they were home learning (for 17 weeks).
Parent of children 10 and 13 years, NSW
Very hard home schooling while both parents working from home. Kids were not as engaged and only did the basics ... I wish I would've had the time to be more involved.
Parent of three children between 2 and 10 years, NSW
I had to work at home during lockdown and it was impossible to be fully engaged with my children's learning. Neither of them engaged with schooling at home successfully and the elder is so far behind with submissions I don't know if she will catch up. The school were helpful and approachable but this style of learning just hasn't worked for my children.
Parent of children 12 and 14 years, ACT
Reports of parental challenges in managing remote learning (sometimes for multiple children) as well as paid employment or study were common, as noted in describing the family context earlier.
As with educational engagement, parents' concerns about children's mental health were more apparent the older their children. Concerns were also more likely the longer children had spent in remote schooling (Figure 4 and Table A2). Some parents referred to their children previously having had mental health challenges or having such challenges for reasons other than COVID-19. As for the other elements of wellbeing, while the focus was on poorer mental health, about three in five of the parents indicated they had no concerns or only slight concerns about their child's mental health.
The breadth of parents' comments about children's mental health covered parents' own anxiety or worry about their child's mental health (or other aspects of wellbeing); the links between mental health and other aspects of children's lives, including what they saw as the source of their child or children's mental health challenges; and their frustration with accessing services.
As well as referring specifically to mental health difficulties, some parents referred to children's anxiety or depression and, if referring to younger children, sometimes to behavioural problems or difficulties with the regulation of emotions. There were related comments about isolation and loneliness (see 'Connection to peers and friends', below).
Many parents described the mental health challenges and a few survey participants spoke of children having very difficult experiences, including self-harm.
I found COVID positive for work in many ways, but it was a disaster for my children. They both had some behavioural issues, mental health issues and did little learning online.
Parent of children 6 and 9 years, Victoria
Due to the children's mental health, we changed the routine at home, children did no chores and now are finding it very difficult to get back into a normal routine. Depression and social withdrawal is now a factor in my teenager's life.
Parent of children 11 and 14 years, state unspecified
Lockdown was incredibly difficult for the children. Noticeable impact on mental health and wellbeing observed in mood swings, depressed moods and lower motivation for schooling.
Parent of children 6 and 10 years, Victoria
[Six year old] had more extremes of emotions and was quick to a tantrum. She didn't cope well through the lockdown period.
Parent of children 3 and 6 years, state unspecified
My daughter (14) suffered significant mental health issues during the lockdown periods, including self-harm. We have sought professional help, and things are improving now that she is back at school and with her peers. It was an extremely difficult time for her.
Parent of children 10 and 14 years, Victoria
My youngest child's mental health deteriorated during 2020 and 2021 - increased self-harm, eating disorder, depression, anxiety.
Parent of child 17 years and older child/children, NSW
Some parents commented on their experiences in accessing services, which often included frustration in having to wait for the required services.
Like many children, my son now sees a psychologist to deal with the stresses of the pandemic. Working from home and remote learning from home was a very stressful and unique environment for the family.
Parent of child 8 years, state unspecified
Ability to access mental health services for my child is appalling! I've been on a waiting list for six months now.
Parent of child 6 years, South Australia
Trying to access mental health services was extremely difficult for my son during a very difficult time.
Parent of children 13 and 16 years, Victoria
My 15 year old suffered mental health challenges, mainly related to being a teenager but COVID-19 exacerbated the effects and made it much harder to engage with support services because face-to-face support wasn't available at the time when she would have accepted it.
Parent of children 15 and 17 years, Victoria
Remote schooling and social isolation from children's friends and peers, and from other family members, were the factors most commonly linked to children's mental health challenges.
[Six year old] is an extrovert and extremely social. I can't even begin to explain here all the complex and detrimental impacts the school closure has had on her. The negative changes in her during remote learning impacted the whole family and some of the changes remain today. It was scary to see her mental health take such a dive.
Parent of children 3 and 6 years, ACT
My eldest daughter became increasingly anxious while schooling at home to the point that I was seriously considering sending her to school for mental health reasons. After lockdown in 2020 we sought treatment for her for anxiety, this helped with managing anxiety but the second lockdown caused a worsening of symptoms.
Parent of children 7 and 9 years, ACT
The mental health effects on my eldest with not being able to engage with her peers was heartbreaking and being unable to see friends or family for the majority of two years was very upsetting for her.
Parent of children 2 and 8 years, Victoria
Since lockdowns have ended, I have noticed our child's development to be progressing more rapidly due to being able to see family, friends and attend swimming lessons. She feels happier, is sleeping better and is more motivated.
Parent of child 4 years, Victoria
The COVID-19 pandemic itself was reported by parents to have caused fear and anxiety in children, with many parents saying that children were affected by news reports on the subject and were asking questions not previously asked, indicating fear of their own mortality and of that of their family.
A heightened level of anxiety, especially for the five year old. We barely watch the news, but she picks up on everything.
Parent of children 3 and 5 years, South Australia
The fear instilled in children from the media by hearing and being impacted by COVID will sadly affect them for life. I had to turn the radio and TV off so my daughter wouldn't live in fear.
Parent of children 3 and 6 years, Western Australia
My children have been asking more questions about mortality, and about the world and their possibilities in doing the things they had wanted to do when they grow up. It has caused some symptoms of depression and bouts of sadness in the household.
Parent of three children 7 to 13 years, NSW
While the comments about mental health were largely about parents' concerns of worsening mental wellbeing, some reported that lockdowns and being at home provided a positive environment for children.
Due to my child's anxiety she enjoyed lockdowns where she got to stay at home (her safe place) and have her immediate family around her (it meant that nothing bad could happen to us).
Parent of children 12 and 15 years, Western Australia
My 15 year old is suffering significant emotional/behavioural/mental illness challenges. Some of the movement restrictions have actually assisted in keeping her safely at home by reducing her opportunities for going out. However the restrictions have also added to her feelings of isolation.
Parent of child 15 years and older child/children, NSW
As noted previously, about three in five parents reported having no concerns or only slight concerns about their child's mental health.
Compared to other aspects of wellbeing, parents were less likely to express concern about children's physical wellbeing. As shown in Figure 4, within the more COVID-affected states there was a strong age gradient, with concerns for physical health more likely for older children. For those states less affected by COVID-19 lockdowns, the age gradient was not as clear, although having some concerns was most apparent for the oldest children as in the other states.
In parents' comments that referenced physical health there were many who referred to children missing out on organised sport, leading to concerns about fitness and health. There were other factors reported, including links to mental health.
Loss of community and school-based sport has led to a noted decline in general fitness levels.
Parent of child 11 years, Victoria
All their sport was cancelled mid season, very bad for mental AND physical health.
Parent of children 12 and 14 years, NSW
They just didn't want to leave the house to get exercise. Two otherwise very fit and healthy kids. Normally do lots of sport.
Parent of children 12 and 14 years, NSW
[Seventeen year old's] anxiety got a bit worse during the pandemic (he started taking anti-anxiety medication during this time) not because he was unhappy being stuck at home, or was worried about COVID, but (we think) because he wasn't being physically active - going to the gym and playing soccer for example.
Parent of children 16 and 17 years, Victoria
Concerns about an increase in screen time were also expressed, sometimes related to worries about impacts on health.
Both of their schooling has been adversely impacted - grades have dropped, they've developed bad screen habits, and physical fitness is reduced.
Parent of children 13 and 16 years, ACT
Impacts on physical health have been significant. Our children no longer seek outdoor activities and have become very dependent on their devices at a very young age.
Parent of children 8 and 10 years, Victoria
My youngest has spent a lot of time on devices due to lockdown and remote learning and this has impacted their physical activity and social anxiety.
Parent of children 14 and 17 years, and older child/children, Victoria
Parents commented on trying to help their children in respect to their physical health.
Ensuring [11 year old] stays physically active has been the most important thing to prevent anger and frustration.
Parent of three children 3 to 11 years, NSW
The health and wellbeing of my children were my main concern. I had to be much more proactive to make sure they had balance between online learning, contact with friends and outdoor time. This meant making new rules about how things would work.
Parent of children 12 and 16 years, ACT
A different concern in the area of physical health related to COVID-19 infection, for the survey participant and/or the children.
I have been extremely worried about our physical health and of contracting COVID.
Parent of children 3 and 6 years, Queensland
I am very concerned about my baby catching COVID and I'm finding everyday things stressful such as going out in public - it's also meant that I've made the decision to keep my 5 year old home from kinder to keep us safe.
Parent of children under one year and 5 years, state unspecified
We are very careful about avoiding other children if there is a risk of passing on or catching a cold - even if we know it's not COVID-19 - because of the flow-on effects of having to have an infant tested for COVID, the difficulties of being able to see a doctor these days, or having to miss work or child care because of it.
Parent of child one year, NSW
My child is too young to be vaccinated which is concerning now that we have to 'live' with the virus. My husband and I are expected to get on with our lives with the knowledge that my child could be infected and become ill.
Parent of child 2 years, Victoria
Connection to friends and peers
As noted above, one of the factors seen as contributing to mental health challenges for children was the social isolation from their friends, peers and non-resident family members. As with the findings for mental health, concerns about children's connections to peers and friends were more likely for older children, for children in the more COVID-affected states, and increased with the longer time spent in remote learning.
While concerns about connections to peers and friends increased with a child's age, from the comments it appeared that parents with children whose schooling was at a transition time - newly starting school, transitioning to a new school or to high school - were especially sensitive to their children missing out on the social connections, having had insufficient face-to-face time to make and embed friendships over the year.
It has been hard for my son who is in year 1 to form social connections due to only ever being in school during COVID - the usual mingling as school drop off/pick up, birthday parties, playdates - these have just not happened in the last two years.
Parent of children 6 and 11 years, NSW
Remote learning was very difficult for our 12 year old as it is her last year of primary school. She was voted as school captain so she was very disappointed to have missed out on all the things they would normally have got to do as part of the leadership roles at her school. She was very lonely and missed her friends a great deal. It has made it very difficult for her to prepare to transition to high school with most of the transition days cancelled because of the lockdowns.
Parent of children 12 and 15 years, NSW
For my younger child it was more significant. He had just started year 7 and hadn't made strong friendships yet. He has challenges with social interactions so outside of school didn't have much social contact. He was therefore very socially isolated throughout the lockdowns. All of his sport was cancelled, which was a significant part of his fitness and social interactions. He had been selected for a squad to trial for a state representative team prior to lockdown and then that was all cancelled. I was very concerned for his wellbeing throughout that time.
Parent of children 13 and 17 years, NSW
This was true even among parents of the younger children, for whom parents had seen children beginning to make connections through child care and other activities.
My daughter [4 years] just reached an age where she started making friends and then was continually interrupted and has not been able to maintain any of those friendships.
Parent of children under one and 4 years, state unspecified
Children without siblings were also reported to be particularly impacted.
As a single child, being in lockdown was very isolating for him. Not having the chance to interact with other children was very difficult.
Parent of child 8 years, Queensland
Some of the examples above indicate that missing out on peer and friendship connections was also related to missing out on milestone events - on parties and socialising, or on children missing out on significant opportunities in their schooling or extracurricular activities.
While parents noted the opportunity for children to be connected to their friends and peers through technology, if old enough, this was not viewed as the same as shared time together face to face. Of course, the very young children could not so readily stay connected to friends through technology.
Yes there's FaceTime and that sort of technology to connect with her friends but it was the spontaneity of play that she was missing, it was the running after her friends, being silly and loud. I really felt for her during that time and I'm so happy she's now back at school.
Parent of children 4 and 8 years, Victoria
It's difficult to pinpoint what is the main impact. I think distance from peers has had a massive impact, the ability to play sport with his friends, to socialise at any level in person has been completely absent.
Parent of child 14 years, Victoria
Another challenge for those doing remote learning was that parents themselves were not always available to entertain and spend quality time with the children at home. (See earlier comments about parents managing their own work along with their parenting role.)
Concerns were expressed, for young children in particular, that children's isolation and lack of social connection during lockdown would lead to a loss of social skills, and their having challenges reconnecting. Some parents thought children were still having some difficulties after lockdown, while others found their children did not exhibit the negative experiences they had anticipated.
My daughter struggled with friendships prior to the lockdown and I was concerned that she would have to start again on going back to face-to-face learning, but it is looking like this won't be an issue.
Parent of child 5 years, NSW
My daughter has lost a little confidence when it comes to leaving the house but I find once we're out she's ok.
Parent of child 5 years and older child/children, Victoria
Some new parents had experienced considerable disruption to the opportunities to socialise, which was seen to impact them as well as their children.3
Having a child at the beginning of the pandemic means we lost all our group support such as mothers groups and swimming lessons and library access. I felt closed in and unsupported. As my child is an only child, now that he is allowed to interact with other kids, he has difficulty doing so.
Parent of child 2 years, NSW
My child has also had limited engagement with other children/peers. Although still an early age and this can be supported moving forward, I am concerned by her limited access to learning through peer relationships.
Parent of child one year, ACT
At the other end of the age scale, parents expressed sadness or concern about older teens missing out on socialising at a time in which their increasing independence is a key aspect of their growing up.
A child of this age should be out with friends, learning about risk and independence. I am concerned that COVID has significantly reduced these opportunities and there may be impacts down the line.
Parent of child 17 years, NSW
I think it is hard on my teenager. This is the time of life they start to become more independent and it has been hard to do this safely.
Parent of child 15 years, ACT
Some parents commented that their child was able to maintain some social connections, even in the more COVID-affected states. For example, some young children of essential workers kept going to child care and to school through the period of restrictions. Older children may have been able to maintain connections through ongoing employment. Certain periods within the restrictions allowed for contact with others outside the home.
Our son did well in the lockdown as he still went to child care and made friends at the park we went to every weekend. It was a bit sad for him not to see his wider family during that time though.
Parent of child 2 years, NSW
Connection to family
Connection to family has been a very different experience during the COVID pandemic, with many people separated from family who live in other households. On the other hand, those subject to lockdowns spent much more time with the family they live with than they typically would. In answering the question about concerns over children's connection to family, some participants were likely responding in terms of co-resident family while others were likely thinking about family who live elsewhere. This is apparent in the range of comments that reference family experiences.
On the positive side, in relation to co-resident family, parents related experiences of more family closeness, including in their relationships with children and in children's relationships with each other.
Our children have grown much closer to each other - we saw a huge increase in the time they spent with each other as siblings with increased fondness and fun. Remote learning gave us an opportunity to spend more time together, which we were incredibly grateful for.
Parent of three children 12 to 17 years, NSW
Working from home means my husband and daughter have a very close relationship, which is great. He is very active in her care and knows her and her needs well.
Parent of children under one and four years, state unspecified
We believe that having our teenagers home gave us many opportunities to talk through teenage stresses that we would perhaps have missed in the busyness of regular pre-COVID life.
Parent of four children 11 to 16 years, NSW
As noted earlier, in relation to family contexts some parents reported there being increased strains in family relationships. The more commonly reported challenge was missing out on connection to family who live elsewhere. This was mentioned in relation to children's wellbeing, in that children missed the connection with those family members, or in that the parents themselves missed the connection with and support of family living elsewhere.
COVID-19 and associated lockdowns has meant we have had no family contact. This is challenging for a sole parent.
Parent of child 7 years, Northern Territory
COVID-19 prevented our child from seeing his grandparents and other family for many months. It has also deprived his mother and me of family support.
Parent of child one year, ACT
3 For more on this, see the Families in Australia Survey report Life during COVID-19: Becoming a new parent: Insights on the Australian family experience.
This research has examined parental concerns about children's wellbeing in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. The data were collected at the end of 2021, when restrictions were easing, although the findings reflect parents' insights about family experiences and child wellbeing during earlier periods of lockdowns and remote learning. The data show a diversity of experiences across Australia, consistent with there being state-specific lockdowns and restrictions. The qualitative data were especially useful for highlighting this diversity.
Parents were more likely to report concerns on a number of wellbeing domains among older rather than younger children, with the greatest difference around concerns about children's mental health.
The experience of remote learning was a particularly relevant factor, with more time spent remote learning strongly associated with higher concerns.
Another finding from the qualitative data was that parents of children with additional needs tended to report having experienced more challenges during the pandemic, which to some extent was related to difficulties in accessing services at the time.
The research also found a strong relationship between parental mental health and concerns about child wellbeing, such that parents were more likely to report concerns about their child's wellbeing when they were struggling themselves. Although this could reflect a tendency for parents who are struggling to have a less optimistic view of their child's wellbeing, it may also be due to a direct causal link between parent and child wellbeing. Such links have been observed in previous research.
Although it was not measurable in a way that could be included in the quantitative analysis, the qualitative data showed that underlying family stresses made it challenging to manage the additional strains that occurred through the COVID-19 pandemic. These underlying stresses include managing with financial strains, relationship breakdown, health limitations and caring demands.
Directions for future research and policy
The question remains as to what extent the cohort of children who experienced the COVID pandemic and its associated lockdowns and restrictions will require additional attention and support to mitigate its impacts.
A useful direction for future research would be to better understand the factors that contributed to positive child wellbeing through the pandemic. Future research would need to take an approach that considers child and family factors as well as external factors - including school approaches to learning and connectivity and the nature of peer networks.
With much diversity in how children and families fared during this time, it is important that there is sustained attention on those who had a more difficult time, to determine appropriate supports to alleviate the pandemic's longer term impacts.
- Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). (2020). Household Impacts of COVID-19 Survey, 12-15 May 2020. Canberra. Retrieved from www.abs.gov.au/statistics/people/people-and-communities/household-impacts-covid-19-survey /12-15-may-2020#caring-for-children
- Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW). (2022). Mental health impact of COVID-19. Canberra. Retrieved from www.aihw.gov.au/reports/mental-health-services/mental-health-services-in-australia/report-contents/mental-health-impact-of-covid-19
- Baxter, J., Budinski, M., Carroll, M., & Hand, K. (2020). Life during COVID-19: What we did during lockdown. (Families in Australia Survey report). Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.
- Benner, A. D., & Mistry, R. S. (2020). Child development during the COVID-19 pandemic through a life course theory lens. Child Development Perspectives, 14(4), 236-243.
- Biddle, N., Edwards, B., Gray, M., & Sollis, K. (2020). Experience and views on education during the COVID-19 pandemic. Canberra: Centre for Social Research & Methods, Australian National University. Retrieved from csrm.cass.anu.edu.au/research/publications/experience-and-views-education-during-covid-19-pandemic
- Broadway, B., Mendez, S., & Moschion, J. (2020). Behind closed doors: The surge in mental distress of parents. Melbourne: Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, University of Melbourne. Retrieved from findanexpert.unimelb.edu.au/scholarlywork/1486519-behind-closed-doors--the-surge-in-mental-distress-of-parents
- De Young, A., Paterson, R., March, S., Hoehn, E., Alisic, E., Cobham, V., et al. (2020). COVID-19 Unmasked Young Children - Report 1: Early findings and recommendations. Brisbane: Queensland Centre for Perinatal and Infant Mental Health, Children's Health Queensland Hospital and Health Service. Retrieved from www.childrens.health.qld.gov.au/wp-content/uploads/PDF/COVID-19/COVID19-Unmasked-Survey-Progress-Report-01.pdf
- Drane, C., Vernon, L., & O'Shea, S. (2020). The impact of 'learning at home' on the educational outcomes of vulnerable children in Australia during the COVID-19 pandemic. Literature Review prepared by the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education. Curtin University, Australia.
- Evans, S., Mikocka-Walus, A., Klas, A., Olive, L., Sciberras, E., Karantzas, G., & Westrupp, E. M. (2020). From 'It has stopped our lives' to 'Spending more time together has strengthened bonds': The varied experiences of Australian families during COVID-19. Frontiers in Psychology, 11.
- Fahey, G. (2021). Beating lockdown blues: Students pass the Covid test. Sydney: Centre for Independent Studies. Retrieved from www.cis.org.au/publication/beating-lockdown-blues-students-pass-the-covid-test
- Goldfeld, S., O'Connor, E., Sung, V., Roberts, G., Wake, M., West, S. et al. (2022). Potential indirect impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on children: A narrative review using a community child health lens. Medical Journal of Australia.
- Li, S. H., Beames, J. R., Newby, J. M., Maston, K., Christensen, H., & Werner-Seidler, A. et al. (2022). The impact of COVID-19 on the lives and mental health of Australian adolescents. European Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 31, 1465-1477.
- Masarik, A. S., & Conger, R. D. (2017). Stress and child development: a review of the Family Stress Model. Current Opinion in Psychology, 13, 85-90.
- Munasinghe, S., Sperandei, S., Freebairn, L., Conroy, E., Jani, H., Marjanovic, S. et al. (2020). The impact of physical distancing policies during the COVID-19 pandemic on health and well-being among Australian adolescents. Journal of Adolescent Health, 67(5), 653-661.
- Olive, L. S., Sciberras, E., Berkowitz, T. S., Hoare, E., Telford, R. M., O'Neil, A., Mikocka-Walus, A. et al. (2022). Child and parent physical activity, sleep, and screen time during COVID-19 and associations with mental health: Implications for future psycho-cardiological disease? Frontiers in Psychiatry, 12.
- Rhodes, A. (2020). RCH National Child Health Poll - COVID-19 pandemic: Effects on the lives of Australian children and families. Retrieved from www.rchpoll.org.au/polls/covid-19-pandemic-effects-on-the-lives-of-australian-children-and-families
- Sicouri, G., March, S., Pellicano, E., De Young, A. C., Donovan, C. L., Cobham, V. E. et al. (2022). Mental health symptoms in children and adolescents during COVID-19 in Australia. The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 48674221090174.
- Westrupp, E. M., Greenwood, C. J., Fuller-Tyszkiewicz, M., Olsson, C. A., Sciberras, E. et al. (2021). Parent and child mental health trajectories April 2020 to May 2021: Strict lockdown versus no lockdown in Australia. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 00048674211065365.
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Appendix: Supplementary information
About the fourth Families in Australia Survey
This report uses data from a cross-sectional survey conducted in Australia in November-December 2021. This was the fourth survey in the Families in Australia Survey series conducted by the Australian Institute of Family Studies. The first of these surveys was conducted in May-June 2020 to capture the initial impact of COVID-19 on families. Further surveys in the series were conducted to find out about family wellbeing, hearing directly from families, and reporting research findings back to families, service providers and policy makers.
All Australians aged 18 and over were eligible to participate in the Families in Australia Surveys. The surveys were conducted online and took around 20 minutes to complete. The surveys were promoted through the media, social media, newsletters, internet advertising and word of mouth. Participants from any of the previous surveys, who opted in to be contacted about later surveys, were also invited to complete this survey. Families in Australia Survey 4 ran from 4 November to 13 December 2021, with almost 6,000 Australians aged 18 years or over fully completing the survey. At the time of the survey, with increasing vaccination rates, restrictions were easing across NSW, Victoria and the ACT, although case numbers remained high, and some border restrictions with other states and territories remained. Case numbers for the Omicron variant of COVID-19 were just beginning to emerge and climb in Australia.
A set of child wellbeing questions (described below) was asked of all survey participants who lived with one or more of their own (including step, fostered, adopted) children aged under 18 years. In Survey 4, a total of 2,144 respondents answered at least one of the child wellbeing questions, including 819 who provided a comment in that section of the survey.
The report draws extensively on parents' responses to an open-text question asking about children's wellbeing and parenting, which were reviewed to identify key themes or issues relevant to this research.
Limitations of the research
The Families in Australia Survey has a significant bias toward female respondents, and so a majority of the responses about parenting and children are by mothers, with the scope being limited to parents with a youngest child aged under 18 years. These data are analysed by child age and state/territory of residence. The analysis also includes parent-reported information about children's time spent in remote learning and parents' self-reported mental health.
The survey is a non-probability sample and, as such, it is not representative of the Australian population, so care should be taken in generalising findings to all Australian families.
Particular demographic groups are not well represented. It is unlikely the sample fully captures the experiences of those from non-English speaking backgrounds and lower income families. The survey is also heavily biased to female respondents, so the extent to which fathers may have had different views of their children's wellbeing is not well captured in the data.
Parents were invited to comment about the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on their parenting and/or their children's wellbeing with the question:
Is there anything you would like to note about COVID-19 impacts on your children, on you as a parent, or the way you parent, and/or family rules and expectations? Any positive or negative comments are welcome.
An online survey question like this, as opposed to a more in-depth interview, cannot capture all the details and complexities of each families' experiences of children's wellbeing. However, the responses resulted in a very rich set of data, particularly given the size of the sample that includes children of different ages and of families of different backgrounds and states and territories across Australia. (see Table A1).
The analytic approach taken was one of content analysis. All responses were reviewed and key themes identified, which are reported on here. Some relate to children's experiences of different kinds of wellbeing (e.g. mental health, education) while others relate to parents' own experiences and feelings. Quotes taken from parents' comments are used throughout to illustrate these themes. While this approach means the analysis is not guided by existing research, the findings are consistent with those reported elsewhere, as we return to in the report summary.
Parents were also asked to rate how concerned they were with children's engagement with education, physical health, mental health, connection to friends and peers and connections with family. Possible ratings were 'not at all', 'slightly', 'moderately', 'very' and 'extremely' concerned. In cases where the respondent had more than one child under the age of 18 years, a random number generator in the survey picked one child for them to report on.
This report summarises the findings from these responses, providing an overview of the extent of parents' concerns on different types of child wellbeing. The analysis focuses on differences in reports about child wellbeing according to child age and according to the state or territory of residence, with time spent in remote learning also explored, and multivariate analysis also extending this to consider parents' own mental health as a factor. The multivariate analysis is ordinary least squares (OLS) with the ratings of parents' concerns treated as continuous variables with values of 1 (not at all concerned) through to 5 (extremely concerned4
In some of the descriptive analysis findings are disaggregated according to whether participants live in a more COVID-affected state or territory. This refers to the extent of lockdowns and restrictions experienced across Australia, with the more COVID-affected states and territories being Victoria, New South Wales and the ACT. Some respondents did not continue through the survey to the final demographic questions in which state or territory of residence was captured and they are excluded from the state-based analysis. Survey participants' state or territory is typically included in the quote attributes, so these participants are referenced as 'State unspecified'.
Findings have not been weighted to adjust for the bias in characteristics of the sample relative to the characteristics of all Australian parents or families. These findings may therefore not generalise to all families in Australia, particularly those that are not well-represented by the Families in Australia Survey sample.
Sample characteristics and multivariate results
Some characteristics of the 2,144 respondents who answered at least one of the child wellbeing questions are summarised in Table A1. As is the case for the survey overall, the vast majority of respondents were partnered females.
|Respondent characteristics||At least one child wellbeing question answered (N)||Provided a comment about parenting/children (N)|
|Other/prefer not to say||34||15|
|Partnered (including live apart)||1,727||668|
|Number of children aged under 18 years at survey|
|Three or more||401||154|
|Age of youngest child aged <18|
|0 to 2 years||598||210|
|3 to 5 years||429||153|
|6 to 12 years||714||282|
|13 to 17 years||403||174|
|Age group of selected (or only) child aged <18|
|0 to 2 years||295||111|
|3 to 5 years||391||135|
|6 to 12 years||747||289|
|13 to 17 years||578||244|
Some other characteristics are explored in the section below, specifically, information about children's remote learning and parents' mental health.
Ordinary least squares (OLS) estimation was used to analyse the child wellbeing data further. The resulting model coefficients (in Table A2) show the associations between child or family characteristics and each measure of wellbeing. While some associations are statistically significant, showing that the characteristic and aspect of wellbeing are related to each other, this does not necessarily imply a causal relationship. A coefficient of one is equivalent to one step in the rating of concern, the rating having five categories going from 'not at all concerned' through to 'extremely concerned'. A positive statistically significant coefficient means this characteristic is associated with more concerns, while the opposite is true of a negative coefficient.
The age differences observed in Figure 4 are apparent, with the gap between youngest and oldest greatest for reporting about mental health concerns.
In these models the indicator of being in a more COVID-affected state or territory is not statistically significant. The models also include time spent in remote learning, which of course varied significantly according to whether children were in a COVID-affected state or not.
The multivariate analyses shows that poorer self-reported mental health was associated with a higher rating of concerns across each of the domains. This is consistent with the findings in Figure 6.
|Variable||Educational engagement||Physical health||Mental health||Friend/peer connection||Family connection|
|Child age (ref = 0-2 years)|
|State (ref = More COVID-affected states)|
|Less COVID-affected states||-0.04||0.10||0.06||-0.08||0.04|
|Remote learning (ref = None)|
|More than 4 months||0.87***||0.58***||0.59***||0.81***||0.43***|
|No formal ed. incl. <3 years||0.43**||0.42**||0.24||0.50**||0.23|
|Parent self-reported mental health (ref = excellent)|
Note: This was fit using ordinary least squares. Dependent variables are 1 (not concerned) to 5 (extremely concerned). *p < .05; **p < .01; ***p < .001
4 Similar models were fit using ordered logistic regression, which treats the categories of 'not at all' through to 'extremely' as ordered but not continuous. The findings were comparable to those resulting from the OLS regression approach. The OLS results are presented in this report given that interpretation of the coefficients is more straightforward for OLS than for ordered logistic regression.
About the Families in Australia survey
The fourth Families in Australia Survey ran from 4 November to 13 December 2021, with almost 6,000 Australians aged 18 years or over fully completing the survey. At the time of the survey, with increasing vaccination rates, restrictions were easing across NSW, Victoria and the ACT, although some border restrictions between states and territories remained. The Omicron variant of COVID-19 was just beginning to emerge in Australia and case numbers starting to climb.
The Families in Australia Survey is AIFS' flagship survey series. Its scope is every person in every type of family, with the survey open to all Australians aged 18 years and over.
Families in Australia seeks to find out how families are managing, about relationships, connections and support, as well as about the things families do together or in the community, such as work and study. This survey is not representative of the Australian population, but nevertheless provides useful insights on aspects of Australian families.
The fourth Families in Australia Survey ran from 4 November to 13 December 2021. This follows a series of three surveys. The first was Life during COVID-19, which ran from 1 May to 9 June 2020. The second ran from 17 November to 22 December 2020 and the third from 19 May to 30 June 2021.
Authors: Jennifer Baxter and Tracy Evans-Whipp
Editor: Michael Day
Graphic design: Lisa Carroll
Project team: Jennifer Baxter, Megan Carroll, Mikayla Budinski, Diana Warren, Andrew Whitecross, Kelly Hand
Baxter, J., & Evans-Whipp, T. (2022). Child wellbeing during the COVID pandemic: Parental concerns (Families in Australia Survey report). Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.
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