This report presents findings from qualitative research conducted with a range of children, young people and parents in vulnerable or seldom heard groups, carried out to explore their lived experiences during and throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. Participant groups were selected to fill gaps in the existing evidence base and included children, young people and their parents with additional support needs; with domestic abuse experiences; who are asylum seeking and from minority ethnic backgrounds; and in gypsy/traveller families. Participants also included young and single parents; parents with physical and/or mental illness; and parents in the perinatal period.
In total, the research involved 247 participants, 44 children, 90 young people and 113 parents. The main methods used were focus groups, individual interviews and drama-led play sessions. Some research was also conducted via text conversations and non instructed advocacy.
Experiences of the pandemic overall
Overall, many experiences were similar across all groups and consistent with findings from existing research carried out with children and young people in Scotland.
All participants – children, young people and parents – reported a decline in their mental wellbeing over the course of the pandemic, particularly during the two lockdown periods in spring 2020 and early 2021. There was agreement that the second lockdown affected them more because of weather conditions and the duration of Covid-19 mitigation measures.
Drivers of low mental wellbeing identified were feelings of isolation due to being unable to see peers; tensions within the family due to spending all day in the same space; excessive screen use; pressures related to social media; the absence of activities that were not screen based; and a lack of routine leading to poor sleep. Some positives of spending more time with family and exploring the local area were identified by some, and most participants reported improved wellbeing as restrictions eased.
Most children and young people found home learning during the school closures very challenging. Some children and young people found the learning difficult to follow or struggled to motivate themselves to complete work. There was a recognition that home learning provision during the second lockdown was more organised, but also that this increased pressure on young people to keep up with tasks, which increased anxiety for many. The increased structure of home learning during the second lockdown does not appear to have been sufficient to establish a routine for those struggling with this aspect. Participants would have welcomed more direct 1 on 1 engagement with teachers, and for schools to proactively check on children's and young people's wellbeing. Digital access was a widespread problem during the first lockdown, but was resolved for most families by the summer of 2020.
Parents also reported a substantial decline in mental wellbeing. Many parents had no "respite" from childcare responsibilities during the period of school and ELC closures, which affected their wellbeing, and in some cases their employment and own education.
In terms of access to health and mental health services, experiences among children, young people and parents varied. There was a general drop in provision in the initial part of lockdown, but services became available again as they adjusted to remote delivery methods. Children, young people and parents seeking to access services for the first time found this difficult, and there was a feeling that access routes were unclear, particularly for mental health services. Parents discussed having to seek out services themselves and be persistent, which was challenging for some, and felt that there should be more proactive offers of support to ensure needs were met. Some parents reported being unable to access any support for their children. There was also a general feeling that primary care was not available for routine appointments. However, parents were also very appreciative of mental wellbeing support being offered through schools, nurseries or third sector organisations, where this was available.
Overall, those who were accessing services found online and phone provision challenging, and the length and quality of remote GP appointments was described as lower than pre-pandemic. Most would have preferred face to face contact, although some young people preferred remote access as they were able to fit service into their days more easily.
Participants understood the reason for Covid mitigation measures, and most were in favour of restrictions as they were, although some felt that restrictions on meeting friends outside were too strong. Face coverings caused difficulties for some, e.g. those with limited English or hearing impairments who were reliant on lip reading, and some with exemptions felt stigmatised and felt that the exemption system was not effective. In general, it was challenging for children and young people to stick to physical distancing in schools.
Needs of particular groups
Children, young people and parents in different vulnerable groups also talked about challenges they faced as a result specific circumstances and needs. Many of the challenges faced by children and families as a whole affected participants in vulnerable groups more strongly. For example, young and single parents were most strongly affected by social isolation and the absence of childcare provision to provide "respite" from parenting responsibilities and to allow them to work or study. Those with very young children also felt particularly affected by the lack of social interaction for their children, who had lived all or most of their life during the pandemic. They reported that their children did not engage with others through online methods, and in some cases struggled to understand restrictions. Both young parents and parents with young children were particularly worried about their children's development.
Children and young people who had had tailored additional support for their learning prior to the pandemic, such as those with Additional Support Needs (ASN) or those with limited English, found it very difficult to take part in home learning when this support was removed, and felt that they were falling further behind their peers as a result. These groups called for increased 1-to-1 support from teachers, or face to face contact. Some children and young people with ASN were also particularly affected by the change in their daily routines.
Another issue relevant to several groups was the suitability of online service provision, including some remote technology and social media. Some children and young people with ASN were unable to use video calls or social media due to their health conditions, or found it very difficult to engage with. Some participants with domestic abuse experiences within their home also struggled to find private places to make use of remote support services, and some were unable to access support that had previously been provided face to face outside the home.
Some groups also experienced particular problems in accessing services. Parents of children with ASN reported postponed diagnosis assessments, and that it was not possible to indicate in advance that an individual has ASN when booking Covid-19 tests. Many parents in the perinatal period experienced delayed health appointments and a lack of support through health visitors. Having more knowledge about adapted health procedures during the pandemic would have helped decrease their anxiety. Participants in this group were also more nervous about being a new parent and missed interactions with other new parents.
For children, young people and parents experiencing domestic abuse, feelings of safety in relation to the perpetrator depended very much on individual circumstances. For some families affected by domestic abuse, pandemic restrictions reduced contact with perpetrators, which was perceived as beneficial, while others who were living with their perpetrator and spending all day in the same space felt significantly less safe.