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  • During the pandemic, school-age children kept home by lockdowns experienced significantly higher rates of family violence, according to new research.
  • Violence is a leading cause of mortality and morbidity during adolescence and linked to an increased risk of future negative health outcomes.
  • These outcomes include depression, anxiety, and suicide.

Pandemic restrictions and the financial strain they created challenged families in ways that might have led to increased physical abuse of school-age children, according to a new study.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), social distancing measures could increase the risk of domestic violence, including child abuse.

During the pandemic, school-age children kept home by lockdowns experienced significantly higher rates of family violence, according to the abstracts of two studies to be presented at the American Academy of Pediatrics National Conference & Exhibition.

Abstract author Mattea Miller, a medical doctor candidate at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, told Healthline she was surprised by how many emergency room visits weren’t referred for further help.

“Given that all the injuries in this study were due to family violence, we were surprised to see that 8 percent of visits did not have a referral to a social worker and that it did not vary during the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said.

Her study found that more than half of the 819 teens and preteens evaluated for violence-related injuries at the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center in Maryland reported events involving family, frequently their parent, that involved fighting or child maltreatment.

Miller said violence is a leading cause of mortality and morbidity during adolescence and is linked to an increased risk of future adverse health outcomes that include:

  • injuries due to repeated violence
  • depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • anxiety and suicide

“Exposure to family violence at a young age also increases the likelihood that a child will be exposed to additional violence or become perpetrators of violence in the future, continuing a cycle of violence,” she said.

For another study, researchers looked at trauma registry data from nine pediatric trauma centers from March through September 2020 and compared it to the same data from 2016 to 2019.

Researchers analyzed data on 39,331 pediatric trauma patients, where about 2,000 were victims of suspected abuse.

They found that the number of child abuse victims 5 years of age and older tripled during the study period, from an average of 36 patients during a similar period before the pandemic to 103 patients after.

“Economic and emotional stress, in addition to the absence of other adults in the child’s life that would typically recognize and report abuse, may have contributed to increased rates of child abuse during the COVID-19 pandemic,” abstract author Dr. Amelia Collings said in a statement.

“While school-aged children were sheltered at home, teachers, healthcare workers, coaches, and other adults outside the family were not there to notice signs of physical abuse,” she said.

Dr. Vera Feuer of the school-based mental health program at Northwell Health in New Hyde Park, New York, said the pandemic had an “immense” impact on our relationships.

“Families were forced to be in constant contact while being completely isolated from others in their life,” she said.

Feuer emphasized that financial stress, increased anxiety and depression, increased substance use, and balancing family, school, and work-life contributed to strained family relationships.

“The resulting increase in marital conflict, divorce rate, and domestic violence has been reported across countries during the lockdown,” she noted.

Dr. Victor M. Fornari, vice chair of child and adolescent psychiatry at Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks, New York, agreed that increased stress at home was likely a root cause for many people.

“As the stresses of the pandemic impacted each member of the family uniquely, the stress level in the home rose,” he said.

Feuer pointed out things families can do to help lessen stress and reduce the risk of domestic violence.

“Including fostering healthy coping and connectedness, by creating family routines, healthy habits and creating an environment that fosters open communication,” she explained.

According to Feuer, adults also need to recognize and manage their anxiety and stress while modeling healthy ways of managing and regulating emotions.

“Recognizing when seeking help and utilizing outside supports is needed is also essential in addressing underlying issues,” she continued. “Identifying significant sources of stress and using collaborative problem solving with family members to tackle them will also help communication and foster connection and ultimately prevent violence.”

Fornari noted that families need to monitor the atmosphere of their home environment and watch for increases in alcohol or other substance use.

“If a member seems dysregulated or out of control, families need to know to ask for help,” he said. “Often turning to their clergy or primary healthcare provider can be useful.”

Feuer said children could be especially at risk.

“Children should be encouraged to voice and raise their concerns with trusted adults,” said Feuer. She said this could be a family member, school staff, medical professional, church member, or community member.

She added that children should also be encouraged to tell someone by phone or text at a hotline service.

“From the United States and Canada, call 1-800-4-A-CHILD. Anytime, day or night, people are there to help kids who are being hurt,” she said. “If you are in danger, call 911. Be sure to give information like your first name and address so they can get you help.”

They can also visit the federally funded Child Welfare Information Gateway.

New research finds pandemic stress has increased domestic violence targeting school-age children.

Experts say this could be caused by the emotional and financial stress caused by pandemic restrictions.

They also say there are resources to help resolve or prevent domestic violence, and children or concerned adults should access them to get children the help they need.