Methods: Guided by stress and coping theory, the current study explored how parents with young children (N = 191) in the United States perceived and experienced emotional connection and social support during the COVID-19 pandemic. Data were gathered through an online survey about siblings, child well-being, family functioning, and how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted families. Participants were asked to elaborate on their experiences of reduced contact with loved ones, how they define emotional connection, and describe how they have emotionally connected with family and friends during the COVID-19 pandemic. Participant responses were analyzed using a reflexive, thematic analysis.
Findings: The majority of the sample were female (96.86%), White and not Hispanic/Latinx (72.77%), and married (71.73%). Participants reported an average of approximately 2 adults (SD = .55, range = 1–5) and 2.68 children in each household (SD = .92, range = 1–6). When describing key components of emotional connection, participants largely drew on different aspects of social support, including affective support – namely feelings of empathy, acceptance, and love – support through companionship from friends and family, and instrumental support. The primary ways participants adapted to achieve emotional connection during COVID-19 were through technology and in-person interactions with a close group of friends or family and/or those that adhered to physical distancing measures. Technology use included calling over the phone, making video calls, and text-messaging. Connecting emotionally in-person involved visiting a close group of loved ones and family members outside the household and spending quality time with members of one’s own household.
Conclusion and Implications: Parents of young children are grappling with a unique and complex set of stressors due to COVID-19, and the present study illustrates the adaptive ways they have drawn on others for support resources in order to cope emotionally. Practitioners working with parents and families faced with physical distancing requirements should draw on creative, technology-based strategies to help clients connect with family members and close friends in order to maintain vital emotional and social support resources. In order for the social work profession to evolve to meet the needs of clients during extraordinary stressors, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, research must elevate participant voices to gather information that highlights lived experiences. Future research should continue building knowledge around what emotional connection means for individuals and families in times of great stress.