Child Abuse in the Time of COVID-19

As the world continues its efforts to contain Covid-19, people all over are facing multiple sources of stress that add to this health crisis: school and business closures, family confinement, isolation and economic vulnerability (Santhanam, 2020). According to Coffman (as cited in Santhanam, 2020), any time stress intensifies, there is an increased risk of abuse on children.

It is still uncertain how long this pandemic will last. Not knowing can cause anxiety, tension and irritability for children and caregivers (Santhanam, 2020). The United Nations has raised the alarm that reports of domestic violence have soared around the world, underscoring how unsafe homes can be during a pandemic (Guterres, 2020).

According to Sege, child abuse may happen when a caregiver is pressured by circumstances outside their control (as cited in Santhanam, 2020). Child welfare experts are most concerned about three conditions currently taking place (Santhanam, 2020):

Routines are being disrupted. With businesses, schools and daycares closed, parents and children are in each other’s constant company, sometimes in close quarters. That may be welcome time spent together, but it can also be incredibly stressful when coupled with the demands of work, bills and other anxieties. Children, too, may act out when they are under stress.

Jobs have been lost. Which means more households are straining under the weight of debt and economic insecurity.

Children are isolated from others who care. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the act of going to school and being seen by teachers, staff and fellow students stretched a modest net to help catch children who might be mistreated. Before, someone outside the home might spot a bruise and ask how things were going. Amid social distancing, that oversight is gone.

Sage said that “these are all conditions that set up what might lead to child abuse and neglect” (as cited in Santhanam, 2020).

Research (Self-Brown, Anderson, Edwards, McGill, 2013) has shown that, when life is disrupted by natural disasters, incidents of abuse increase, and children in dangerous situations can fall through the cracks in the system. That may happen now as teachers, early childhood education providers and home health clinicians are obligated to file reports of suspected child maltreatment, but this pandemic has interrupted or suspended those services (Barlett, as cited by Santhanam, 2020).

The daily stress of the current pandemic, and the isolating measures taken to combat it, make impulse control increasingly difficult (Berkowitz, as cited by Santhanam, 2020). According to Sege (as cited by Santanam, 2020), those who feel at risk of causing harm to their children should:

  • Call a friend.
  • Call a pediatrician.
  • Send their child to a quiet corner.
  • Take a walk outside (while maintaining a safe social distance from others).
  • For infants, place them in a crib, step away and draw deep breaths to cool off.
  • Call or text a helpline.

There is no shame in asking for help during times of unprecedented stress, Coffman said, adding that community members need to watch out for their friends and step in if they think someone needs help.

“Social distancing doesn’t have to be social isolation”. For those who identify a family who may be struggling and want to help: calling, texting or video-conferencing with them to ask how they’re doing, or offering to pick up groceries, diapers or other essential supplies might make a difference (Sege as cited in Santhanam, 2020).


Guterres, Antonio (2020). UN chief calls for domestic violence cease fire amid horrifying global surge. UN News.

Santhanam, L. (2020). Why child abuse experts fear a spike of abuse during Covid-19. PBS News Hour.

Self-Brown, S., Anderson, P., Edwards, S., & McGill, T. (2013). Child maltreatment and disaster prevention: A qualitative study of community agency perspectives. Western Journal of Emergency Medicine, 14(4).

One thought on “Child Abuse in the Time of COVID-19

  1. Anne McShane
    April 14, 2020 at 3:29 pm

    Thank you for starting this conversation. As a pediatric nurse, I am especially aware of the heartbreaking situations that arise when parents are stressed and have limited coping skills. I found two links people might want to view:

    Anne McShane, MSN, RN
    College of Nursing and Health Sciences

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