Children and families struggling in isolation: Unheard pandemic stories of distress and survival

Franco A. Carnevale
8 min readAug 26, 2020

Experiences encountered by Montreal’s Welcome Hall Mission

By Jennifer Morin & Franco A. Carnevale

Drawing by an 8 year old child

The COVID-19 pandemic has had many devastating impacts, causing serious illness and death as well as overwhelming levels of job loss and financial insecurity. Some of these impacts have been measured and reported daily while many others remain largely unnoticed and unrecognized.

Drawing on our experience within a community-based organization in Montreal (Quebec, Canada), the Welcome Hall Mission (WHM), we are writing to bring to light serious impacts that are causing major harms to children and families. These harms may have long-term or permanent consequences — harms that could be prevented or at least mitigated through relatively low-cost community supports.

Some families were socially disadvantaged before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic because they were living in poverty. For some families, this was compounded with additional problems such as difficult working hours for precariously employed parents, mental illness, children’s learning disabilities, as well as limitations in parental literacy or language capacities (language limitations may be particularly problematic for recently migrated families). For many of these families, their everyday lives were already very stressful as they strived to ensure their children had the necessities of life, relying on community programs to help them meet basic needs. These include after-school homework support services for children who require additional guidance; supports that are highly limited within many public schools. Some of these children have learning disabilities, speech or language problems, or even mild to severe mental health disorders, which may not be properly diagnosed or treated. Everyday life for these families is a precarious struggle marked by frequent crises whenever any of these problems escalate. Yet, these parents — who care deeply for their children — find ways to assist and nurture their children and survive their hardships, drawing on whatever community supports they can find.

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and implementation of population-wide “confinement” measures to control virus transmission, many families’ worlds were flung from everyday struggling and stress into a state of overwhelming distress and devastation. Distancing measures resulted in immediate closures of schools, daycare, and community programs, as well as loss of extended family and neighborhood supports. For most “advantaged” families staying at home was protective, as their homes became safe sanctuaries. However, for many socially disadvantaged families, already living within precarious conditions, confinement was destabilizing — unravelling their lives as they were shut off from needed daily supports. In particular, many were — and continue to be — seriously overwhelmed in trying to meet their children’s needs. In turn, their children are living within very turbulent sometimes deeply conflictual homes.

Most “advantaged” families seem to have adapted to the challenges of home schooling and family recreation activities, as parents have learned how to assist their children with home schooling, with online guidance from schools and other online programs. Socially disadvantaged families, however, have seen their disadvantages become seriously amplified because their economic hardships could not ensure adequate home schooling technology and their own literacy or language limitations impeded their ability to provide the academic support that their children have required — despite their best efforts and deep love for their children.

For example, many Southwest Montreal families who drew on the WHM’s Family Support Program — which included an after-school homework support program led by the first author (JM) — maintained contact with the program and described the significant challenges that they faced. These included difficulties regarding:

· Having no access to computers or having only one tablet for multiple children;

· Not understanding the online home schooling platform suggested by the government;

· The large amount of school work assigned to them by teachers, which is especially difficult when the children do not understand the assigned work;

· Children’s reactions and resistance to parent-led schooling;

· Realizing more clearly their children’s academic difficulties;

· Having all their children at home all day long without any child-care support;

· Children who were scared, bored and frustrated with being confined continuously at home, frequently resulting in major fights in their households;

· Parents’ fears of getting infected themselves, especially single parents, knowing there was no one else who could take care of their children;

· Parents worried about whether their children learned enough to move on to the next grade.

These families were significantly disadvantaged, navigating highly distressing days, weeks, and months within confined, overcrowded, and under-resourced precarious home conditions. Some families have more than one child with learning problems. Children’s ages within a single household varied from 2 to 13 years, making it difficult for parents to meet everyone’s needs, especially within single-parent families. Despite these extraordinary challenges, these families demonstrated strength and determination to care for their children and to survive this hardship as well as possible. Parents fought hard to support their children.

In referring to families living in circumstances such as these, the term “vulnerable” is sometimes used to describe them. This is partially accurate, as vulnerable implies susceptibility to harm. These families are clearly susceptible to harm. Many of these harms have actually materialized at a greater than usual scale during this pandemic. However, vulnerability is sometimes mistakenly equated with personal weakness or deficiency — with is both inaccurate as well as deeply disrespectful when applied to socially disadvantaged families. Vulnerability is a socially contextual phenomenon. Social contexts favor and disfavor families in different ways, which affects their lived vulnerability. Imagine if the recent confinement period was coupled with widespread continuous electrical power outages. If all families had to survive the pandemic with no electricity, yet remain confined within their homes, economically-advantaged families who have drawn on a wealth of online and technological supports would likely experience significant hardship and possibly experience heightened vulnerability. Social contexts can amplify or diminish vulnerability. For persons who live with physical disability, adapted physical environments (e.g., sidewalk access, ramps, elevators, wheelchair access) can diminish their physical and social vulnerability by facilitating their participation in everyday community life, while the lack of physical adaptations can amplify their vulnerability. Poorly lit stairways can cause physical vulnerability for all persons, regardless of their physical capacities. Neighborhoods that are well-lit and well-monitored can enhance safety for all persons who are out in the nighttime, rendering them less vulnerable.

All persons are susceptible to harm. Their social environments determine their actual vulnerability, depending on the barriers or supportive adaptations that persons will encounter.

The same applies to socially disadvantaged families. Their social context can amplify or diminish their vulnerability. Sudden closures of schools, daycare, and other community supports can seriously amplify their vulnerability, which has been the reality of many families during the pandemic. However, vulnerability can be diminished through supportive adaptations. The families who reported the serious hardships listed above also described how their distresses were comforted and their problems were eased by adapted community supports, such as access to the WHM Family Support Program team. For example, the WHM team supported parents by:

· Helping parents develop structures, routines, and information for children that were conducive to school learning;

· Providing homework booklets to families to help them understand school board instructions on how to promote schooling at home; and for some families, how to do this without a computer (e.g., each booklet had corrector guides to help parents understand how to do the exercises; booklets were personalized to each child based on what the staff already knew about their academic strengths and difficulties);

· Assisting parents in how to review homework and in giving their children constructive feedback;

· Encouraging parents to return homework booklets to the team, so parents could get ongoing feedback and guidance;

· Inviting parents to send photos of their children’s work, so the team could provide feedback and guidance over the phone, to parents as well as children;

· “Checking in” weekly or biweekly with families just to ask how they were doing.

Within a week, parents and children described a number of improved experiences to the team. For example, families reported that:

· Parents were better able to establish stable routines for schoolwork;

· Children were fighting less and were more willing to do their schoolwork;

· Days were less generally chaotic;

· Parents were better able to identify their children’s academic strengths and challenges and were able to actively consult with the homework support team to build on these observations.

These socially-disadvantaged children and families were already significantly vulnerable in their pre-pandemic lives, which was seriously amplified by pandemic confinement measures that abruptly ruptured ties to essential community supports that could help mitigate their daily susceptibility to harm. Support from this community-based program seemed to dampen some of this heightened vulnerability.

The full scope and magnitude of the harms that have been borne by children and families such as these, during this pandemic, will require closer examination through proper family follow-up as well as social research. There is no doubt that many children and families have been severely harmed and the impacts of these harms may be long-term.

Therefore, we propose the following recommendations for urgent action:

· Schools, community-based social services, and community organizations should contact all families with school-age children, especially “more vulnerable” families, to identify which children and families have been particularly adversely impacted;

· For these families, the impacts of the pandemic on children and families should be assessed to identify needs for urgent and longer-term supports, including psychological supports for children and parents as well as educational supports and adaptations for children returning to school in September whose learning may have been disproportionately compromised during confinement measures;

· Policy-makers should examine how future pandemic measures, for this ongoing pandemic and future pandemics, can ensure that infection control measures are complemented with child and family support measures adapted to the realities of families within each community;

· Research studies should be expediently designed and implemented to investigate the full scope and depth of child and family impacts of this pandemic as well as supports or adaptations that have been or would have been helpful in mitigating these impacts. In this commentary, we have described the experiences of families within one program in one community organization. We know that numerous other organizations have seen similar impacts. Researchers should partner with these organizations to map broader transversal impacts and identify supports that have been effective;

· Public media, social media, and other information dissemination channels should prioritize bringing to light these families’ experiences, sharing their stories of adversity as well as survival. These stories have been concealed in isolation, as their neighbors, communities, and governmental bodies remain unaware of their needs;

· Community-based programs, like the WHM Family Support Program, should be supported by government and charitable donation funding to help ensure immediate child and family supports, given their existing relationships and engagements with more highly vulnerable children and families.

These disadvantaged families have demonstrated their deep devotion and capacities to care for their children despite their significant vulnerabilities, even during difficult times like this pandemic. In future pandemics and throughout the remaining course of the current pandemic, when massive resources are devoted toward the prevention of infection transmission, these measures should be coupled with community-based services that ensure all children and families have the supports they need to survive the pandemic socially as well as physically!

Jennifer Morin, BA (Psych), is the supervisor of Children’s Services in the Family Services Program at the Welcome Hall Mission in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

Franco A. Carnevale, RN, PhD (Psych), PhD (Phil) is a nurse, psychologist and child and youth services ethicist. He leads the VOICE Childhood Ethics research program at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada (www.mcgill.ca/voice). He has worked with the Welcome Hall Mission for several years as a researcher and as a child/youth services consultant. Email: franco.carnevale@mcgill.ca

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Franco A. Carnevale

Franco is a nurse, psychologist and clinical ethicist. He is a Professor at the Ingram School of Nursing at McGill University (Montreal).