New Research: The Highs and Lows of Parenting in a Pandemic

New research from the Kerr Parent Lab in the School of Human Ecology details the challenges and opportunities to mental health and well-being that parents have found as they navigate the COVID-19 pandemic with their families.

Drawing from a survey of 1,009 parents in late April, when most schools across the U.S. had closed and Safer-At-Home orders were in effect, Dr. Margaret L. Kerr and her team found parents reporting heavy costs to their psychological health even alongside increased appreciation for and closeness to their children. Eighty percent of respondents were from Wisconsin.

Key findings included:

  • Two-thirds (66%) of parents reported that COVID-19 has negatively impacted their psychological health.
  • Two out of every five parents (39%) reported symptoms of moderate to severe anxiety and/or depression.
  • Many parents reported more feelings of frustration (57%) and worry (67%) than usual.
  • Most parents felt that concerns around work (66%) and social distancing (60%) were interfering with parenting.
  • The majority of families were spending more time in activities together, including shared meals (68% of families) and outdoor activities (69%).
  • Most parents felt more gratitude (54%) and closer to their children (58%) than usual.

Asked to reflect on the most rewarding parts of parenting during the COVID-19 pandemic, one respondent replied, “Not busy running here and there every night of the week or weekend. Slow down and enjoy the time.”

“While the levels of negative impacts reported, especially depression and anxiety, are of course concerning,” says Kerr, “I am heartened by the increased gratitude and affection as well. What’s more, this pandemic has highlighted the importance of supporting parents’ well-being at all times, not just when we’re in crisis. I hope that the positive policy and clinical interventions taking place as a result of the pandemic carry forward beyond this moment to inform and improve our parental supports more broadly.”

Download the research brief, Parenting in a Pandemic (pdf), and view a Wisconsin-specific version, Pandemic Parenting in Wisconsin (pdf).

The Kerr Parent Lab is led by Dr. Margaret L. Kerr, assistant professor of Human Development and Family Studies (HDFS) in the School of Human Ecology and State Specialist in Vulnerable and Underserved Children with UW Division of Extension. Co-authors on this research were HDFS PhD students Sarah Braaten, Kerrie Fanning, and Christina Kim.


See Dr. Kerr’s recent TV interview by News 3 Now’s Live at Four program on the stresses of parenting in a pandemic, and meet more of SoHE’s Human Development and Family Studies faculty and researchers.

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