Families Experiencing Adversity Prior to COVID-19 Pandemic Better Able to Cope with Stressors

The COVID-19 pandemic has been particularly difficult for parents. Building on interview data from a previous longitudinal study focused on preventing toxic stress, Chapin Hall researchers interviewed 243 families from three cities to measure changes in depressive feelings, stress, and the impact of stress. Researchers used multi-level models to examine how demographics, neighborhood quality, previous family adversities, and resilience affected caregiver mental health during the pandemic.

What We Did

The team conducted virtual interviews with parents to understand how previous experiences of adversity, along with resilience factors, impacted feelings and social loneliness a year after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. We re-administered standardized measures in December 2020 and January 2021 that were also collected over 3 years ending in February 2020, allowing us to compare survey responses. Results were analyzed among four groups of parents grouped using latent profile analysis of risk and resilience characteristics prior to the pandemic when children were age birth to 15 months.

What We Found

  • Across all four groups, parents reported large increases in depressive feelings from a 56% increase to a 181% increase. Additionally, all parents reported increases in extreme stress during the pandemic. However, the stress increase was largest (83%) among families who had complex risk factors and lower strengths prior to the pandemic.
  • Parents who reported lower strengths and high household risk had the highest levels of social loneliness during the pandemic. These parents were more likely to report having experienced domestic violence and using harsh parenting practices prior to the pandemic.
  • Parents who experienced less relative adversity pre-pandemic showed significantly greater depression and loneliness when compared to their higher risk counterparts.
  • Hispanic parents reported significantly greater increases in depressive feelings during the pandemic compared with parents who did not report Hispanic ethnicity.
  • Parents with a college education or greater reported significantly higher feelings of extreme stress during the pandemic compared with caregivers having a high school education or less. This aligns with another recent study that found more mental health problems in individuals with a university education.

What It Means

This study provides a better understanding of how families with young children having different experiences of risk and resilience have endured the pandemic and offers guidance on where mental health supports should be directed. All families are struggling during the pandemic. But findings suggest that families with fewer experiences of risk and adversity prior to the pandemic had a particularly difficult time coping mentally with social isolation and stressors. Conversely, those with more experience with adversity demonstrated greater resilience. This is consistent with the notion that individuals who have been able to manage or adapt to adversity often have a reservoir of coping skills to apply in life.

Despite demonstrating resilience and coping skills developed from previous adversities, parents in high-need neighborhoods and Hispanic parents still reported decreased mental health, demonstrating a need for continued mental health services and resources. Further, families experiencing greater social isolation and increased risk of domestic violence and harsh parenting require additional attention to address this particularly severe isolation. All resources and interventions should be culturally relevant and account for the continuing negative effects of the pandemic, its disproportionate impacts, and heterogeneity within higher risk communities.

This article is part of Chapin Hall’s suite of work on toxic stress.

Recommended Citation
Monahan, E. K., McCrae, J. S., & Daferede, S. (2022). Pre-pandemic adversity buffers the role of social loneliness in caregiver mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic. International Journal of Public Health, 67, 1604675. doi: 10.3389/ijph.2022.1604675

Read the article on the International Journal of Public Health website