Middle-class children suffered the worst impact on mental health during the pandemic, research suggests.
The British study of almost 10,000 families found those from affluent backgrounds experienced the steepest decline.
Experts said such families may have been more likely to have parents working from home, while trying to juggle childcare.
The research, published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, found that the gap between the mental health of poorer and wealthier children narrowed during the pandemic.
Those youngsters whose parents were employed, stayed together and were highly educated appear to have suffered sharper falls in mental health than those who were less well-off.
‘Balancing childcare and work’
Experts gave possible reasons for the findings, including parents trying to juggle paid work with looking after children and educating them while schools were closed down because of the coronavirus.
“This strain, which has been linked to parent distress levels, may plausibly have been greatest for families with employed parents who needed to balance childcare against their paid work,” they said.
“Moreover, the intense pressures and increased risk of Covid infection faced by essential [key] workers in this period may have placed further strain on some families with employed parents.”
The study looked at data for 9,272 children as part of the UK Household Longitudinal Study.
The mental health of youngsters was reported by parents using a standardised questionnaire when the children were aged five to eight between 2011 and 2019.
Details of mental health were also recorded when they were aged 5-11 in July and September 2020 and March 2021 – all during the pandemic.
The results showed that wealthier children experienced steeper declines in their mental health during the pandemic than more disadvantaged children, who tended to have lower mental health levels to begin with.
For example, the average difference in child scores between those whose parents were unemployed compared with those whose parents were employed was 2.35 points before the coronavirus but fell to 0.02 points during the pandemic – this means the inequalities narrowed.
‘Emotional strain of lockdown’
The study used a score called the “strengths and difficulties questionnaire” at ages five and eight, where a higher score represents worse mental health.
Overall five-year-olds saw average scores rise from 8.89 to 9.28, out of 40.
The authors, including from the University of Glasgow, said: “Our study provides evidence that trends in child mental health have continued to worsen during the pandemic.
“Unexpectedly, in many cases children from traditionally advantaged groups saw larger declines than children from disadvantaged groups – that is, child mental health has become more equal but at a worse overall level.
“The pattern is contrary to predictions from some child health experts that the financial and emotional strain of lockdowns would fall hardest on children with parents in unstable employment, living in overcrowded housing, with less access to outdoor space and educational resources.
“We speculate that social isolation and reduced access to services during the Covid-19 pandemic brought the experiences of traditionally advantaged groups closer to those already faced by children from disadvantaged backgrounds, and/or that emergency income support measures during the pandemic may have eased the economic burden for disadvantaged families.”
The team said more needed to be done to help improve mental health across all age groups.
‘Tantrums and low moods’
Last month, a study found lockdown damaged the emotional development of almost half of children.
Parents said their children appeared more worried, had lost confidence more easily and were more prone to tantrums and low moods after the UK’s Covid lockdowns.
The findings emerged in the first study of its kind into the impact of lockdowns on children’s behaviour and emotional development, with the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the UCL Institute of Education surveying more than 6,000 parents in England.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: “We’re investing an additional £2.3 billion a year into mental health services by 2024.
“This means an additional 345,000 children and young people will be able to access NHS-funded mental health support, including through the mental health support teams we are rolling out to schools and colleges across the country.”
They added: “The mental health workforce also continues to grow and in March 2023, we saw over 9,300 more mental health staff working than the previous year.