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The University of Essex and Family Action project highlight families’ needs at the front line of COVID-19

16 September 2021

The unprecedented year we’ve had has affected us all, and families have seen their limits tested. Our Impact and Influencing Manager, Stacey Warren, explains how a new project we have co-produced with the University of Essex shows how families have fared under COVID-19, what adaptations they’ve made, and what support is still required.  

In July 2020, the University of Essex hosted a ‘Challenge Lab’ that brought together public and voluntary sector organisations with academics from the university to develop ideas for projects that would support these organisations. Veronica Lamarche, Rebecca Clift and I were successful with the bid for our project looking at how family relationships had affected family resilience during COVID-19 and we received funding from the University of Essex’s Impact Acceleration Account (IAA). IAAs are block awards made to research organisations by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) with the aim of speeding up the impact of research. 

We wanted to look at family relationships and resilience to inform the services that Family Action and others need to provide to support recovery from COVID-19. We surveyed over 1000 people across the country in December 2020 and May 2021, comparing our findings with existing recordings of family interaction, and found that families have proved resilient in the face of the pandemic. Generally, people felt their relationships with their children were better now than they had been at the beginning of 2020 and were optimistic that their relationships would continue to improve.

Despite this broadly positive theme, it was felt by families that the challenges they face are considerable, and they needed additional support and resources for families to thrive.

In particular, people from lower socio-economic backgrounds and those with children under the age of five reported more serious conflicts with their partners, with the common areas of stress for all people surveyed being money, followed by schooling and children’s behaviour.  

Relationships between parents and older children also suffered, with parents of five to 11-year-olds reporting that conflicts with them were significantly more serious throughout this period compared to before COVID-19.

Interestingly, in the period between our two surveys, work ceased to be a leading source of stress, possibly because families had largely adapted to working from home.

While this combination of work and home life might allow us to see a more complete picture of those we live with, most people reported that the opposite was true and that they had not learned anything surprising about their partner during COVID-19. However, when they did learn something, people commonly reported how surprised they were by the love, strength, support and quality of their relationships, followed by how skilled their partners were at work and household chores. This might be because, in general, more respondents than not reported that lockdown had allowed their families more quality time together – something which we’ve noted in our recent blogs. In fact, many felt that the definition of what quality time meant for families had changed. 

Definitions of quality time consistently centred on shared experiences such as meals, activities and making new memories together, rather than time that focused on using technology – which we have again tried to address through the production of our free “Creating Happy Memories” packs for families.

We also asked people what they thought society could do better and common responses included more social cohesion and positivity around things like meeting others and less shaming and negativity towards families. They also suggested that there was a need to help vulnerable groups such as disabled people, women and single parents to a greater extent and for there to be more support for schools and in-person activities for children during the day. 

Participants said they would also like more support from the government with homeschooling, job creation and financial support, and single parenting, as well as more access to mental health support and attention paid to family wellbeing.  

Creating and undertaking a project in this way was a new experience for Family Action, and we hope to work together with the University of Essex again in the future as we learn more about how things continue to change for families now that restrictions are largely lifted. 

Read our Families at the Front Lines of COVID-19 report.

Our FamilyLine service supports adult family members via telephone, text, email and webchat with issues like those raised through this research. If you are interested in supporting family resilience, why not explore how to become a volunteer at FamilyLine?