Children's Loss of Parents and Caregivers to COVID-19: 'A Hidden Pandemic'

Elizabeth Ahmann, ScD, RN, ACC


Pediatr Nurs. 2021;47(6):309-311. 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction


The COVID-19 pandemic has had devastating impacts on individuals, communities, countries, and the globe. Children are among those who have been affected. Although less likely than adults to become ill or die from COVID-19, children have suffered in the areas of financial security, education, and mental health. Additionally, recent estimates point to the startling numbers of children who have suffered the loss of a parent or primary caregiver as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. We join the urgent call to action for development and implementation of family-centered and evidence-based strategies to support children facing the many challenges related to COVID-19, including those facing the loss of a parent or primary caregiver as a result of the pandemic.


Living through the COVID-19 pandemic has not been easy for anyone, children and families included. In general, children have been infected with COVID-19 at lower rates than adults, and when infected, have milder illness with low rates of hospitalization (Mayo Clinic, 2021). Still, since the onset of the pandemic, children have comprised 16.4% of total cases (American Academy of Pediatrics [AAP], 2021). As of October 14, 2021, some 6.2 million children in the US have tested positive for COVID-19 (AAP, 2021). Despite these numbers, a relatively small number of children have experienced serious illness as a result of the virus, with some developing multisystem inflammatory syndrome (MIS-C), some long-COVID, and some even succumbing to the infection (Mayo Clinic, 2021; Thomson & Rasmussen, 2021). Older children, those with underlying health conditions, and children from minority backgrounds are at increased risk of negative health outcomes of COVID-19 (Thomson & Rasmussen, 2021). The approval of vaccinations for adolescents and children will moderate these outcomes, as does use of masks and other infection-prevention procedures.

Illness is not the only impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on children, however. The pandemic has contributed to family financial strain, with effects on parental employment, health insurance, housing stability, and food security (e.g., Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 2021; Hetrick et al., 2020; Patrick et al., 2020). Children's academic progress has been affected, and pre-existing academic disparities for students of color and those with disabilities have widened (U.S. Department of Education [DOE], 2021). Parent and child mental health has taken a toll, with most children experiencing some "challenges to their mental health and well-being during the pandemic" (DOE, 2021, p. iv). Children already at risk of mental health issues are among the most vulnerable (Gleason, 2020). All of these challenges children and families face are likely to have effects on children for years to come, even into adulthood. Additionally, the toll, in general, has been higher on racial and ethnic minority children (DOE, 2021).