By Cristina Novoa and Taryn Morrissey, Center for American Progress, August 27, 2020
Since the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic on March 11, 2020, the United States has seen a proliferation of cases, record-breaking unemployment, and economic instability. Meanwhile, many public health measures that severely restrict social interactions—including stay-at-home orders and school and child care closures, among others—have been prematurely lifted, with disastrous effects. And as news spread about the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on communities of color, high-profile acts of police violence against Black Americans helped reignite the Black Lives Matter movement. These events are profoundly transforming the lives of American adults. So how will children fare in the face of these rapid changes?
These recent events help illuminate the three Es of trauma: event, experience, and effects. In the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, the event—the threat of falling sick, economic uncertainty, and the disruption of relationships—is, in theory, shared nearly universally. However, an individual child’s experience is shaped by several factors, including financial and social resources, and mediated by their interactions with adults. A child’s specific experience helps determine whether the event will have negative effects on their well-being. Recent surveys of families’ experiences during the pandemic suggest parents affected by financial hardship are also experiencing greater distress, which in turn creates emotional difficulties among children. Adults in communities that for generations have been socially or economically marginalized by unjust policies may struggle to marshal enough financial and emotional resources to blunt the experience of stressful events. Indeed, research also suggests that even middle- and high-income Black and Latinx families are experiencing greater financial hardship as a result of the pandemic than other comparable households, giving researchers and policymakers reason to worry that the pandemic will widen existing inequalities in parent and child well-being.
The pandemic and its economic and social fallout may have adverse effects in the lives of young children today, but these events are not unique. In the past 25 years, researchers, policymakers, and practitioners have focused on a subset of adverse events occurring in childhood, known as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). These events are strongly associated with negative effects on a child’s physical, emotional, and social well-being throughout their life span. Little is known about the prevalence of adverse events during the developmentally sensitive early childhood period or how systemic inequities give rise to them early in life; however, it is known that their effects can last a lifetime.