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The Plight of Children Caring for Children During the COVID-19 Pandemic: The Learning and Developmental Consequences

Aug 17, 2021

Shelly L. Counsell and Judith A. Rosenberg, University of Memphis


This article examines the family dynamics of older siblings caring for younger siblings (which may have increased during the current pandemic) and the potential impact on learning, development, and overall well-being for both the young child and young caregiver. The demands of caring for young children may be challenging to meet for child caregivers who are innately immature and lack developmental understanding of the needs of their infant/toddler charges. The article explores those demands, including forming attachments, satisfying their wants and needs, and healthy interactions. The effects of young caregiving on the psychosocial and academic development of younger children and the extent of impact on health care delivery are dire, yet remain largely unknown.

In December 2019, the earliest COVID cases were first identified in China and the virus reached the United States and other countries around the globe in early January 2020 (Kim et al., 2020; Wang et al., 2020). Children of all ages were directly impacted when COVID-19 cases spread throughout the US. Emerging epicenters in heavily populated communities with diverse populations (including Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York City, and Seattle) often experienced financial disparities and limited access to educational and medical resources. Among reported data, African-Americans (and people of color) are over-represented in the number of fatalities to date (Kirby, 2020; Shonkoff & Williams, 2020; Yancy, 2020).

As a result of the pandemic, resources that were already limited are now unavailable to many of the same families and children, due in part to the loss of income as a result of unemployment, protracted illness, or family death. Educational resources (e.g., public preschool programs, early childhood education (ECE) centers, church and hospital ECE programs, Head Start, home-based ECE programs, afterschool programs, children’s museums, zoos, camps, public libraries, and community centers) are no longer available and may never recover or return, with potentially catastrophic outcomes (Brooks et al., 2020; Center for the Study of Child Care Employment [CSCCE], 2020; Clark et al., 2020; Nguyen et al., 2020).

While the coronavirus pandemic has shut down much of the U.S. economy, with more than 33 million workers applying for unemployment insurance since March 15, 2020, millions of workers remained on the job providing essential services. Nearly every state governor issued executive orders that outline industries deemed “essential” during the pandemic, which typically include health care, food service, and public transportation, among others. In addition to health care workers and various support staff (e.g., hospital housekeeping personnel) individuals with lower paying jobs such as grocery store employees, sanitation workers, transit workers, public safety (police, fire, paramedics), filling station employees, and the like are equally essential (Blau et al., 2020; Chaganti et al., 2020; Chowkwanyun & Reef, 2020; Kinder, 2020). Many of these essential workers are women of color, lack a college degree, and cannot work remotely.

Despite being categorized as essential, many workers in these industries are not receiving the most basic health and safety measures to combat the spread of the coronavirus (Kerwin & Warren, 2020). Essential workers are dying as a result. When the Trump administration failed to provide essential workers basic protections, working people began taking action (Sim, 2020). Some essential workers walked off the job in protest over unsafe conditions and demanded personal protective equipment while unions fought to ensure workers received adequate workplace protections.

For the female essential worker (see Table 1) who has young children (McNicholas & Poydock, 2020), staying at home to care for her own children and retaining her employment are mutually exclusive. These essential workers shoulder the major responsibilities of feeding their families (North, 2020a; North, 2020b). ECE, whether for younger children or school-aged children, largely shut down in response to the pandemic. These closures further magnified and exacerbated an already existing ECE crisis nationwide.

Table 1. Female Employee Percentages in Essential Jobs

Individuals who have adult family members living in the same household (who can help provide care ) are minimally affected. Individuals who have adult family members residing in the same community, and who are able to break social distancing to provide assistance, are similarly unaffected. But individuals who do not have anyone to call on are most severely affected. Who will look after their children? A distinct possibility for many parents may be that an older child in the household must assume responsibility for caring for younger siblings (Rosenthal & Thompson, 2020).

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