Investigation of frontline staff reveals the lockdown legacy on families

Wednesday 17 March 2021

Emotional, economic, and educational costs underpin family stress and strain. Action for Children responds by outlining its ‘roadmap to resilience’ manifesto

  • March 2020: 74% of staff relayed that families feared for their mental health as the biggest concern.
  • February 2021: A year in, 40% of staff said family’s biggest dread was now their children falling behind with their education with a third saying parents didn’t understand or have the ability to help their kids with schoolwork.
  • A year on from lockdown, despite some government financial help almost half of staff said families still worried about making ends meet.
  • Covid conflict means families are three times more likely to be strained than brought closer together by the pandemic.
  • Charity has developed a roadmap for parties to follow to build resilience for families and young people, these suite of asks for the next Scottish Government.

Ahead of the first anniversary of lockdown, a new investigation by one of Scotland’s largest children’s charities reveals the impact the last 12 months have had on society’s most vulnerable children, families, and young people. Action for Children carried out interviews with more than 100 its frontline workers, representing each of its 87 projects in Scotland which support 20,000 people annually. The findings are revealed as the charity publishes its manifesto ahead of the 2021 Holyrood election titled ‘Roadmap to Resilience.’

Emotional Cost

The Action for Children view from the frontline shows that the legacy of covid lockdown could unleash a seismic mental health crisis for Scotland’s families and young people. The charity’s frontline staff stated that at the beginning of lockdown that families and young people were most worried about their mental health and wellbeing, with almost three quarters (72%) of staff reporting it as the number one issue (1). One support worker said: “Mental health resources are limited in the community we work in and we have seen mental health and wellbeing declined rapidly for families and YP. For example, locally two parents have died due to prescription medical overdoses due to decline in their mental health leaving three children without their mothers.” When examining this issue more closely a quarter of staff said anxiety was driving up poor mental wellbeing while almost one in five staff reporting an increase in young people or families either self-harming or misusing substances as a result Covid, including, sadly, several instances of suicide (5).

Economic Costs

At the start of lockdown, more than half (56%) of staff felt that families were worried about the financial ramifications of lockdown (1). This was realised during lockdown as many families faced the heart-breaking choice of either putting money in the meter or food in the cupboards. This all contributed to family life becoming strained and their resilience being drained or tested to the limit. “With the increased time being spent at home, this is leading to increase in food consumption, electricity, gas and wi-fi bills.  Some parent/carers have been placed on furlough; some have even lost employment due to current situation.  This has placed financial additional financial strains on the family.”  While the UK furlough scheme has been a support for families, more than a third of staff (38%) said families main concern now related to job losses. During the pandemic, Action for Children distributed almost £1m of funding, through the Scottish Government’s Wellbeing Fund and its own emergency appeal, to vulnerable families to cover energy bills, vouchers for food shopping and tech device to allow home learning. Despite this, nearly two fifths of staff (39%) said families were still struggling to make ends meet (2).

Educational Costs

At the beginning of lockdown, education impacts were less on parent’s mind compared to mental health and financial woes with just 15% of staff saying it was the main worry for families (1). However, a year on, this number has almost trebled with more than two thirds (40%) of staff stating this is families’ major worry (2). Furthermore, almost a third (32%) of staff said parents have confided in them that they don’t understand or have ability to help their children with their schoolwork. One worker summed up the views of some of the families she works with by saying: “Parent and carers can feel frustrated and hopeless that they are unable to help their children as they may themselves have additional learning needs or are not technologically confident, so don’t feel they are able to help.” 31% of staff stated that lack of digital and tech equipment hampered home learning for families. A lack of routine was another significant barrier for families with the same number (31%) citing that as the biggest barrier families faced (5).

Family stress and strain

While some staff have highlighted some positives from lockdown for families, they were working with such as greater community spirit, the Action for Children investigation reveals that families are three times more likely to be strained (29%) than brought closer together (9%). Another key takeaway from the research was the importance of family support. With many families struggling with mental health, financial issues and schoolwork, lockdown saw many families struggling to cope with a lack of; routine, of face-to-face services, space and freedoms as a result conflicts and disputes often occurred. The resilience of families was either drained or tested to the limit. As one worker with an employability project said: “Families are reaching out more rather than the young people themselves who we would normally deal with directly. We have had more contact from parents than we would normally have.” With this troubling set of circumstances, Action for Children staff found that families were reaching out to us more with a significant number of families reaching out for support for the first time. Twice as many families either were more willing or became more dependent (23%) on the charity compared to those families who became more distant when engaging support (10%). Family support is at the centre of the charity’s work, tailoring approaches to offer families the tools and resilience needed to build and maintain strong family relations (4).

Young people being blamed

The investigation also uncovered a cruel covid injustice as a significant number of young people felt they were being blamed for both the length of the lockdown and the spread of the virus despite the majority abiding by the rules. One staff member said that the young people she works with “feel down that they are getting the blame for why we are still in lockdown”. Over a quarter (28%) of staff said they had been told by young people that they felt they were blamed (7). Another support worker said: “There is a feeling among young people the get the “blame for everything.”

Roadmap to resilience

The pandemic has occurred at a time when families had little resilience to manage its impact. With the next Holyrood Election just six weeks away, the charity is urging the next Scottish Government to act urgently to help Scotland’s children, young people and families. The charity is asking parties to follow their roadmap to resilience.  Some of the suite of policies asks are highlighted below. Action for Children’s Manifesto is calling on the next Scottish Government to:

  1. Increase the Scottish Child Payment to £20 per week in the Government’s first budget.
  2. Create an education catch-up fund to ensure young people are not more disadvantaged. This education equalising fund would pay for, including but not limited to, catch-up tutoring, learning equipment and strategy toolkits, after school and holiday clubs and positive well-being workshops to help learning mindset.
  3. Enter a new contract with the families of Scotland. Giving the right to family support services, free at the point of need.
  4. To consider reconvening the Children and Young people Mental Health Task Force or enhance and financially boost its Programme Board. To enable a standalone workstream which forensically reviews, examines, and critically assesses the service provision and needs of young people’s mental health during the pandemic.  Young people and practitioners must be at the heart of this review to make recommendations to future proof and build resilience to young people’s metal health and wellbeing.
  5. Close the digital divide. The Government must create a national programme to ensure all low-income students get an electronic device for learning alongside connectivity.
  6. Extend offer of mental health provision to those people who have a substance misuse and or addiction issues.
  7. Invest in children’s social and emotional learning from primary school onwards to promote wellbeing and resilience.

Paul Carberry, Action for Children’s Director for Scotland, said: “Today we publish our manifesto ahead of the 2021 Scottish Parliament election and call on every party to prioritise supporting vulnerable children, families and young people to bounce back from Covid.

“As we approach the first anniversary of lockdown, our research shows the damaging impact these last 12 months have had on the most vulnerable in society. Sadly, the longer this pandemic has lasted, the more and more families who now find themselves in crisis. We have also seen many instances of families reaching out for support for the very first time with covid seeing them going from ‘getting by’ to finding themselves struggling.

“We are seeing that extreme family stress and strain is the price, children and young people are paying. A legacy of lockdown shouldn’t be a ‘covid or lost generation’, instead we can create a ‘resilience generation’. To do this we need to fund family support services, equalise education opportunities, multiply mental health provision and put money in the pockets of families. Action for Children has detailed a roadmap for political parties to follow so they can deliver that resilience generation Scotland needs to thrive.

“Our manifesto asks draw on our experience of supporting children, young people, and their families both before and during covid. It is informed by the expertise and experiences of our frontline staff and the families and young people who they support, care for and love, and our work in Scotland over the last 65 years.

“The pandemic has accelerated the need to make fundamental changes. Across Scotland, many families are in crisis and, tragically, vulnerable children are paying the price. Today we publish this research, on behalf of the 20,000 children, young people, and families we support across Scotland. But also, for the nation’s other families and Young people. The Scottish Parliament election in May is an opportunity for every political party to commit to building resilience for Scotland’s children and families.

“In times of crisis, or in times of calmness, families need supportive governments in order to raise the next generation of happy and healthy citizens. We will push parties to commit to ensure that every child and young person in the country has a safe and happy childhood and the foundations they need to thrive.”

Case study

Nikki, 32 and Adam, 30, Wallis live with their four daughters. Katelynn is 10, Macey is seven, Quinn is five and Carly is two. Katelynn is a young carer who supports her younger sibling and is supported by Action for Children’s Scottish Borders CHIMES Service.

Before the pandemic, the family was just about managing financially, but it was a struggle as Nikki and Adam both had to give up work after Adam’s diagnosis. The family has received food vouchers from Action for Children since the Covid crisis began.

She said: “We are only in a two-bed house with four kids and two adults. They all get bored very easily.  With Covid the cost of living went up, snacks, gas and electricity, lights left on all the time.  It really helped to have that financial help, we would have been in debt even just with the gas and electric. Nothing has changed in terms of what we have coming in. It was sometimes costing us £30-£35 pounds a day to feed the whole family, we had to use local shops to make a meal.  Normally I budget well and don’t like to ask. I think there is always someone worse off than me. I prefer not to ask and take from someone who does need it more.

“At the start of lockdown, I had to speak to the energy providers and say we couldn’t make payments.   I was surprised they weren’t more helpful. They just gave an extension, another 14 days to pay.  In terms of the car, we can be on the red light for a few days. We try to put as much in the car as we can and hope it will last.  For fuel I take away from things that my husband and I need, like shampoo and conditioner, to keep a few pounds rather than taking it from the kids. I won’t let them go without.  Adam needs the car. We can’t live without it. He struggles to walk up the street without being in pain.  Sometimes has to sleep on the sofa because we can’t afford a proper bed for him.

“I’m feeling a bit better now in terms of my mental health. It got to the point that I wasn’t doing the school runs. I didn’t want to go out. I was in my own lockdown. Then I got paranoid about what others thought, I thought the kids didn’t want to sit with me. I’ve been to the doc and had medication.  To try to get on a level where I don’t think everything is going wrong and everything is against me.  It is not all about me. Do I want my kids to see me these ways? If it gets bad it affects everyone in the house. It will be them who suffer, they are so young they don’t deserve to feel like that. I’ll do it for them.”

“Originally Action for Children had been supporting Katelynn, and they had done so much. She had become so much happier and confident. But they didn’t stop there, they made the support about the whole family.

“I don’t know what would’ve happened without them.”


Media contact

Craig Wilson: 07809 781 190 / [email protected]

Notes to editor

Staff were surveyed between 8 February 2021 and 3 March 2021. This was carried out by email. A total of 107 replies were received, representing all 87 of our services in Scotland.


1.When staff were asked what families and young people’s biggest concerns at the start of lockdown were’ they replied:

Mental health: 78= 72%

Financial 60= 56%

Education 16=15%

2. When staff were asked what children, families, and young people’s current worries were, they replied:

Education 47= 44%

Financial: 42=39%

Jobs: 41= 38.3%

Mental health 40= 37%

Physical health: 4=4%

3. When asked what they would do to improve things for those they support if they were the First Minister, staff said:

Invest more in mental health support: 40= 37%

Financial support for those who need it most 37=36%

Invest in family support services: 33=31%

Educational priorities– more summer classes etc: 26=24%

Employment and training: 18=17%

Invest in community space: 6=6%

4. When asked had they noticed any changes in relationships – between staff and families as well as in the families themselves - due to the pandemic, staff said:

Families more strained 31=29%

Families more willing to engage with services: 13=12%

Families more dependent on services 12=11%

Families more distant 11=10%

Families brought closer together: 10=9%

5.When staff were asked what challenges families faced when it came to home schooling, they said:

Parents don’t understand and/or have ability to help 30=28%

Digital and tech shortfalls 28=26%

Motivating young people 25=23%

Lack of routine 14=13%

Not having the time 14=13%

6. When asked about the impact on mental health for families and young people, staff said:

Feeling anxious/stressed 27= 25%

Isolated 27=25%

Depressed 22=20%

Self-harm/suicidal/substance misuse 18= 17%

No support 13=12%

7. When asked if they encountered young people saying they felt they were being blamed for Covid and lockdown, staff said:

Yes: 30=28%

No/no answer: 77=72%

Action for Children Roadmap to Resilience Manifesto