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Parenting through Change

An early look at life changes during the pandemic and their effect on parent-child interactions

Words by: Lea Tsui

In our last blog, Pandemic Parenting: Reflections on Summer 2020, we reflected with families on factors that most affected their parenting. From changes in childcare to one’s economic situation, it was clear that many participating families experienced a wide variety of life adjustments in response to the pandemic. This is reflected in our early survey data as well, with a significant number of families reporting employment changes, health changes, and social changes in response to safety protocols.

These life shifts were difficult obstacles at times as jobs were lost and hours were reduced, and families experienced illnesses of all kinds. However, not all changes were negative! Some participants started new jobs during the pandemic, welcomed new members to the family, and celebrated getting the vaccine.

In a previous blog, we talked about how caregivers' experiences might affect their interactions with the rest of the householdand as we’ve seen, these factors were positive for some and negative for others. But zooming into the changes that different famillies reported, are we able to see the effects of these life events in caregivers’ behavior, through how much they speak to their children? By combining survey results with the data we’ve gathered from families’ bathtime recordings, we can begin to.

a rubber duck with a thought bubble saying, "More results to come as we process more data!"

Though we’re still in the data processing stage of our research, we do have some families whose recordings we’ve fully transcribed. From these families we looked at those who reported multiple different life events in their survey responses, then marked the approximate event dates onto their child-directed speech (CDS; or how many words per minute they spoke to their child during bath time) rates across the study period. With this mapping we’re able to roughly see what speech rates looked like prior to the change versus after, aka whether caregivers talked or more less.

The graphs from two families can be seen below as an example!

Before we get into what this graph represents, let’s break down its components. The blue dots are the caregivers’ child-directed speech rates in words per minute on a given day— so in the first two bathtime recordings this family submitted in March*, their speech rate was around 34-36 words/min. The blue line marks a health event that the family experienced, while the red lines symbolize job events. Lastly, the gray trajectory in the background tracks the overall trend of the caregiver’s speech rate over the study period. (*Note that dates have been changed to maintain anonymity.)

For this family we’ll be focusing on their job events, so the two red lines. They didn’t experience a job loss or gain, but rather shifts in their current jobs. Though slight, we can see from the gray outline on the graph that their speech rate seems to decrease from around 30 to 20 words/min after the job changes occur. The number of recordings they submitted in this period also decreased significantly from when they first started participating in March, as seen by the blue dots, perhaps because of the busyness resulting from their job changes.

Next, let’s look at how another family’s speech rates changed in response to health events.

This graph is arranged the same as the last one: parents' words per minute to their child is on the y-axis, and the dates of recordings they submitted (changed for anonymity) are on the x-axis. The blue dots represent the rate of child-directed speech in a single bath time, the grey line represents the trend, and the blue lines indicate the date of a health event.

This family experienced two health changes within a relatively short time frame of around three months, which may explain the overall downward trend we’re seeing within their speech rate data. These health events were also reported to be negative ones, and we do see a decrease in their words/min over the study.

While these results are far from conclusive and there’s still much work ahead of us, early analysis like this gives us a peak of some trends we may potentially see once we finish processing all the data. From these two families alone it seems that the life shifts they encountered were followed by less verbal interaction with their children during bath time, as seen in their child-directed speech rates, though of course we don't know if this change is meaningful, or statitistically significant. This corroborates with our earlier conclusion that environmental factors are affecting caregivers’ interactions with family—and this brief analysis suggests that job and health changes may be just that.

With the Covid-19 pandemic being as chaotic and life-changing as it was, we can expect to get results from many other families who underwent life shifts as well. Stay tuned for more as our research continues!


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