Isolated And Struggling Why Children Are More At Risk Than Ever Before (Resize)

Isolated and struggling: why children are more at risk than ever before

Author Eleni Romanou and Emma Belton

We know from research that the risk of child maltreatment increases when parents and carers become overloaded with stressors and children’s circumstances make them vulnerable to danger and exploitation.

The last 14 weeks of lockdown have thrown most of our normal lives and routines into disarray and temporarily created conditions for many families across the UK that are more typically associated with families living in entrenched social isolation or multiple deprivation. Many organisations have already expressed concerns about the impact of these changes on children and families and the possibility that this may result in an increase in child abuse and neglect (Children’s Commissioner, 2020a, 2020b; UNICEF, 2020b; The Alliance for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action, 2020; National Crime Agency, 2020; NSPCC, 2020a; UK Youth, 2020; ECPAT International, 2020; Taddei, 2020; The Children’s Society, 2020).

The NSPCC has pulled together research evidence to look at whether the conditions imposed by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic have increased the risk of child maltreatment in the UK. This is supported by the practice insights of our staff who have been supporting families during lockdown and analysis of calls received by Childline and the NSPCC Helpline.

The review found three areas of risk:

  1. Increased stressors for parents and care givers

Parents and caregivers are facing increased financial insecurity and alterations to their daily routines. Many are juggling work commitments with child care and care for other family members who may be shielding or have become ill. Research tells us that without support, this may lead to mental and emotional health issues (Tunnard, 2004; Mistry et al, 2007).

Parents and carers may use negative coping strategies to manage these feelings, such as withdrawal behaviours where they interact less frequently with their child and do not supervise their behaviour as much (Szymańska & Dobrenko, 2017; Repetti, 1992; Peterson & Hennon, 2005), or substance misuse (Keyes et al, 2012). Evidence links both of these behaviours to child maltreatment (Rodriguez-JenKins & Marcenko, 2014; National Institute for Health and Care Excellence [NICE], 2017: ES106, ES107, ES108; Laslett et al, 2012). The exacerbation of stressors for parents who may have already been struggling and the emergence of new stressors for more families increases the risk of physical and emotional abuse, domestic abuse, neglect and online harms (Capaldi et al, 2012; Stith et al, 2004; Sesar et al, 2015; Lopez-Castro & Priegue, 2019; Baldry et al, 2019; Livingstone et al, 2017a; Livingstone et al, 2017b). However, research also tells us that social support can mitigate these risks (Tucker & Rodriguez, 2014; Iwaniec et al, 2006; Ridings et al, 2017; Prendergast & MacPhee, 2020; Simmel et al, 2016; Osofsky et al, 2000).

‘Telephone contact is containing some families, varying between daily and weekly calls, others are really struggling and isolated and the telephone contact does not feel enough.’

Together for Childhood Diaries Project

  1. Increased vulnerabilities for children and young people

For most children and young people, this has been the longest time spent away from their friends and trusted adults outside their home. We know that lockdown has affected the emotional and mental health of children and young people (Lee, 2020) and changes to their routine have created some new vulnerabilities and exacerbated existing ones. Young people are spending more time online using social media (Kids Insights, 2020) and the risk of online harm and grooming has increased at a time when demand for child sexual materials has also increased (Europol, 2020). There may be less protection at home if caregivers are overburdened and levels of supervision have reduced. Research tells us that children are more susceptible to grooming if they feel lonely or uncared for (Whittle et al, 2014).

For children who were already experiencing abuse and neglect in the home, lockdown has increased their exposure to potential harm and reduced access to protective adults outside the home. However, we know from research that these risks can be reduced if caregivers, trusted adults and communities support and protect young people (Hazler & Denham, 2002; Davies, 2004).

  1. Reduction in normal protective services

These risks to children and young people have come at a time when their interaction with the services and social institutions designed to help them have reduced due to restrictions imposed by the pandemic.

Universal services like schools, GPs, children’s centres, and health visiting are vital for detecting early signs of abuse and neglect, as are non-statutory early help interventions for families, and youth services. All these have either paused or limited their face-to-face delivery to comply with social distancing measures (Department for Education, 2020a; NHS England, 2020; NYA, 2020a; Wilson & Waddell, 2020). There is also less support and scrutiny from friends, relatives and neighbours. Some of the systems designed to detect criminal activity have also been compromised due to lockdown (Cowls et al, 2020; Internet Watch Foundation, 2020a).

‘It’s important families still feel our presence and the support of our service, even though it looks slightly different.’

COVID-19 case studies by NSPCC practitioners


The evidence reviewed in the briefing confirms the warnings raised about the effects of the pandemic on child maltreatment. The combined effects of increased stressors on caregivers, increased child vulnerability and reduced safeguards increases the potential for new and recurring cases of abuse. 

These risks are likely to continue while schools, childcare settings, working conditions and normal protective services are disrupted. Given the potential for ongoing financial insecurity and potential recurrences of COVID-19, these issues are likely to remain even when lockdown is eased.

However, we believe there are solutions to this crisis and have set out a range of recommendations to:

  • ease the stress on parents and carers;
  • respond to the increased vulnerability of children and young people; and
  • rebuild child protection services and put children’s needs at the centre of recovery plans.

Head to NSPCC Learning to read the full briefing and recommendations for how we can protect children during the pandemic.

Emma Belton And Eleni Romanou 1

Eleni Romanou and Emma Belton

Eleni Romanou has been part of the Evidence Team at the NSPCC since 2016. She has worked as a professional social researcher since 2007, managing surveys, evaluations and qualitative research projects for a range of central government and third sector organisations. Emma Belton is an Associate Head in the Evidence Team and has been at the NSPCC since 2010. She has a background in social research having worked in both the criminal justice and children and young people’s sector.


Baldry, A. C., Sorrentino, A. and Farrington, D. P. (2019). Cyberbullying and cybervictimization versus parental supervision, monitoring and control of adolescents' online activities. Children and youth services review, 96: pp302–307.

Capaldi, D. M., Knoble, N. B., Shortt, J. W. and Kim, H. K. (2012). A systematic review of risk factors for intimate partner violence. Partner abuse, 3(2): pp231–280.

Children’s Commissioner for England (2020a). Children’s Commissioner for England creates local area profiles of child vulnerability during COVID-19

Children’s Commissioner for England (2020b). Briefing: children, domestic abuse and coronavirus (Accessed: 17 May 2020)

Cowls, J., Vidgen, B. and Margetts, H. (2020). Why content moderators should be key workers: protecting social media as critical infrastructure during COVID-19 [online]. The Alan Turing Institute. 

Davies, L. (2004). ‘The difference between child abuse and child protection could be you’: creating a community network of protective adults. Child abuse review, 13(6): pp426–432.

Department for Education (DfE) (2020a). Guidance: actions for schools during the coronavirus outbreak. London: Department for Education.

ECPAT International (2020). Why children are at risk of sexual abuse and exploitation during COVID-19.

Europol (2020). Catching the virus cybercrime, disinformation and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hazler, R. J. and Denham, S. A. (2002). Social isolation of youth at risk: conceptualizations and practical implications. Journal of counseling & development, 80(4): pp403–409.

Internet Watch Foundation (2020a). COVID-19 coronavirus announcement.

Iwaniec, D., Larkin, E. and Higgins, S. (2006). Research review: risk and resilience in cases of emotional abuse. Child & family social work, 11(1): pp73–82.

Keyes, K. M., Eaton, N. R., Krueger, R. F., McLaughlin, K. A., Wall, M. M., Grant, B. F. and Hasin, D. S. (2012). Childhood maltreatment and the structure of common psychiatric disorders. The British journal of psychiatry, 200(2): pp107–115.

Kids Insights (2020). Kids Insights: The impact of coronavirus on UK children.

Laslett, A.-M., Room, R., Dietze, P. and Ferris, J. (2012). Alcohol's involvement in recurrent child abuse and neglect cases. Addiction, 107(10): pp1,786–1,793.

Lee, J. (2020). Mental health effects of school closures during COVID-19. The Lancet: child & adolescent health, 4(6): p421.

Livingstone, S., Davidson, J., Bryce, J., Batool, S., Haughton, C. and Nandi, A. (2017a). Children’s online activities, risks and safety: a literature review by the UKCCIS Evidence Group. London: UKCCIS (UK Council for Child Internet Safety), London School of Economics and Political Science.

Livingstone, S., Ólafsson, K., Helsper, E.J., Lupiáñez-Villanueva, F., Veltri, G.A. and Folkvord, F. (2017b). Maximizing opportunities and minimizing risks for children online: the role of digital skills in emerging strategies of parental mediation. Journal of communication, 67(1): pp82–105.

López-Castro, L. and Priegue, D. (2019). Influence of family variables on cyberbullying perpetration and victimization: a systematic literature review. Social sciences, 8(3): p98.

Mistry, R., Stevens, G.D., Sareen, H., De Vogli, R. and Halfon, N. (2007). Parenting-related stressors and self-reported mental health of mothers with young children. American journal of public health, 97(7): pp1,261–1,268.

National Crime Agency (2020). Law enforcement in coronavirus online safety push as National Crime Agency reveals 300,000 in UK pose sexual threat to children [online].

National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) (2017). Child abuse and neglect: recognising, assessing and responding to abuse and neglect of children and young people (NICE Guideline NG76). [London and Manchester]: NICE.

National Youth Agency (NYA) (2020a). Out of sight?: vulnerable young people: COVID-19 response. Leicester: National Youth Agency (NYA).

NHS England and NHS Improvement (2020). COVID-19 prioritisation within community health services. Ref: 001559.

NSPCC (2020a). Lonely children are twice as likely to be groomed online.

Osofsky, J. D., Thompson, M. D. and Zigler, E. F. (2000). Adaptive and maladaptive parenting: perspectives on risk and protective factors. In Shonkoff, J. P. and Meisels, S. J. (eds.) Handbook of early childhood intervention. (pp54–75). 2nd edn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Peterson, G. W. and Hennon, C. B. (2005). Conceptualizing parental stress with family stress theory. In McKenry, P. C. and Price, S. J. (eds.), Families and change: coping with stressful events and transitions (pp25–48). 3rd edn. Thousand Oaks: Sage

Prendergast, S. and MacPhee, D. (2020). Trajectories of maternal aggression in early childhood: associations with parenting stress, family resources, and neighborhood cohesion. Child abuse & neglect, 99: 104315.

Repetti, R. L. (1992). Social withdrawal as a short-term coping response to daily stressors. In Friedman, H. S. (ed.), Hostility, coping, & health (pp151–165). Washington, D.C: American Psychological Association.

Ridings, L. E., Beasley, L. O. and Silovsky, J. F. (2017). Consideration of risk and protective factors for families at risk for child maltreatment: an intervention approach. Journal of family violence, 32(2): pp179–188.

Rodriguez-JenKins, J. and Marcenko, M. O. (2014). Parenting stress among child welfare involved families: differences by child placement. Children and youth services review, 46: pp19–27.

Sesar, K., Šimic, N. and Dodaj, A. (2015). Differences in symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress between victims and perpetrators of intimate partner violence. Journal of sociology and social work, 3(2): pp63–72.

Simmel, C., Merritt, D., Kim, H. M.-S. and Kim, S. (2016). An exploratory study of neglect and emotional abuse in adolescents: classifications of caregiver risk factors. Journal of child and family studies, 25(8): pp2,372–2,386.

Stith, S. M., Smith, D. B., Penn, C. E., Ward, D. B. and Tritt, D. (2004). Intimate partner physical abuse perpetration and victimization risk factors: A meta-analytic review. Aggression and violent behavior, 10(1): pp65–98.

Szymańska, A. and Dobrenko, K. A. (2017). The ways parents cope with stress in difficult parenting situations: the structural equation modeling approach. PeerJ, 5(e3384).

Taddei, L. (2020). Impact of COVID-19 on online child exploitation. London: We PROTECT Global Alliance.

The Alliance for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action (2020). Technical note: protection of children during the coronavirus pandemic, version 1.

The Children’s Society (2020). The impact of COVID-19 on children and young people [PDF]. [London]: The Children’s Society.

Tucker, M. C. and Rodriguez, C. M. (2014). Family dysfunction and social isolation as moderators between stress and child physical abuse risk. Journal of family violence, 29(2): pp175–186.

Tunnard, J. (2004). Parental mental health problems: key messages from research, policy and practice. Dartington: Research in Practice.

Whittle, H. C., Hamilton-Giachritsis, C. E. and Beech, A. R. (2014). In their own words: young peoples’ vulnerabilities to being groomed and sexually abused online. Psychology, 5(10): pp1,185–1,196.

Wilson, H. and Waddell, S. (2020). COVID-19 and early intervention. Understanding the impact, preparing for recovery. London: Early Intervention Foundation

UK Youth (2020). The impact of COVID-19 on young people & the youth sector. [Bransgore, Hampshire]: UK Youth.

UNICEF (2020b). Children in lockdown: what Coronavirus means for UK children. [London]: UNICEF.