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College of Social Work

  • Assistant Professor Yanfeng Xu

Xu Examines Grandparent-Headed Kinship Families Dealing with Material Hardships and Stress During COVID-19

Oct. 26, 2020
Chris Woodley •

The COVID-19 pandemic has placed additional stresses on families. But these unprecedented times are more difficult for families where the primary caregivers are grandparents, also known as kinship care. Assistant Professor Yanfeng Xu is currently researching the pandemic’s effect on non-traditional and overlooked families: Grandparent-headed kinship families.

Xu is the principal investigator and has been working with Professor Sue Levkoff since April to determine how material hardships, exacerbated by COVID-19, affect the parenting stress and behavior, social support, mental health, and resilience of grandparent-headed families during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is an extension of her previous research, which aimed to improve financial well-being and the well-being of kinship families.

“According to my previous research, about half of kinship families are living below the poverty line,” Xu says. “In our current research, we found that material hardships increased grandparents’ parenting stress and harsh and neglectful parenting behaviors through the mediating role of caregivers’ mental health. We hope to further look at the effect on their grandchildren later in life.”

Material hardship refers to the inadequate availability of goods and services deemed minimally necessary for survival. It particularly refers to food and housing insecurity, and hardships related to utility, medical, and daily expenses. While these challenges existed before COVID-19, the pandemic has accelerated the stress level for grandparent-headed kinship care families. According to Xu, very scarce research had examined the relationships between material hardship and parenting stress and behaviors among grandparent-headed kinship families.

While children’s mental and physical health is important, it is just as vital for caregivers and how they deal with stress.

- Yanfeng Xu

Parenting can be another hardship for kinship care families. While parenting programs exist for biological parents, grandparent kinship caregivers still need specialized training and skills, even though they have previously parented their own children. The needed skills are different than those utilized by biological parents, such as handling inter-generational relationships with their adult children. For example, they may find themselves in the middle of a crisis with their children, such as substance abuse, incarceration or mental illness.

“Some grandparents and their children may have had no access to mental health services before COVID, and it’s even less likely now,” Xu says. “It's also hard to use tele-mental health in low-income circumstances, partially because of a lack of accessibility and limited computer literacy. These factors make kinship parents and their children more vulnerable and increases the disparity in mental health services.”

Another part of Xu’s research focuses on the ability of kinship care families to remain resilient and overcome adversities. A correlation exists between a strong social support system, which includes friends, families and peers, and a decrease of stress.    

“Social support was found to decrease psychological distress and increase the likelihood that individuals could bounce back from adversities,” Xu says. “While kinship family’s ability to overcome adversities increases their resiliency, we also want to determine how formal and informal support systems contribute to increasing resiliency during COVID-19.”

Reducing material hardship and better supporting kinship caregivers is essential for improving physical and mental health. The combination of COVID-19, obstacles in providing sufficient food and housing, and an inability to pay utilities has increased the need for improving the lives of kinship families.

“While children’s mental and physical health is important, it is just as vital for caregivers and how they deal with stress,” Xu says. “If they deal with stress positively, it may reduce their psychological stress and improve their children’s outcomes. This may lead to better outcomes at the caregivers’ level, which will lead to more positive implications for everyone involved.”

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