- Periodic spikes in Latinx mothers’ fears of contracting COVID-19 contributed to periodic spikes in stress, which predicted periodic spikes in child externalizing behaviors
This blog highlights and summarizes a policy brief written by Leah Hibel, professor of Human Development and Family Studies at UC Davis. You can access the full policy brief here.
Systemic oppression renders the Latinx community particularly vulnerable to the economic and health risks of the COVID-19 pandemic, with psychological consequences for parents and their children. In a recent study, we sought to understand how financial cutbacks and fears of contracting COVID-19 contributed to children’s externalizing behaviors due to increases in maternal stress among low-income Latina mothers. Data were collected from mothers approximately once a month across the first 10 months of the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Children exhibited more externalizing behaviors among Latinx families that engaged in more pandemic-related financial cutbacks as a function of maternal stress.
- Periodic spikes in Latinx mothers’ fears of contracting COVID-19 contributed to periodic spikes in stress, which predicted periodic spikes in child externalizing behaviors.
- Providing economic support for vulnerable families would help promote resilience to future crises among low-income Latinx families.
The COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to high levels of stress from social isolation, fear of infection, and economic hardship, especially for lower income and minoritized families. Latinx families have faced the brunt of these hardships with higher rates of unemployment and morbidity and mortality caused by COVID-19, compared to non-Latinx White individuals. The family stress model (FSM) describes how stressors such as these have the potential to initiate a cascade of problems for family well-being. Specifically, stress jeopardizes parents’ psychological functioning, undermining the quality of the parent–child relationship and increasing punitive and controlling parenting. Family stress in early childhood due to economic hardship can contribute to the emergence of externalizing behaviors, such as acting out or arguing. Over time, greater incidence of externalizing behaviors can lead to a range of socioemotional issues including delinquency, substance use, and co-occurring internalizing disorders with the possibility of continuing across generations.
Exploring links between maternal stress and child externalizing behaviors
Between March 20, 2020 and Jan. 31, 2021, we surveyed 73 Latina mothers living in California’s Sacramento and Yolo Counties via phone call. Mothers were called on average eight times across the first 10 months of the pandemic. On average, mothers were 25.41 years old and the children they reported on were 35.98 months old. Most mothers (85 percent) were married or in a romantic relationship and had one child in the home (55 percent). We asked them a range of questions regarding how worried they were about themselves, their child(ren), family members, their partner, and other people in the home contracting the virus. We also asked them about the financial cutbacks they had made, about the general stress they were experiencing (for example, how often they felt unable to control the important things in their life), and about their children’s externalizing behaviors, such as disobedience and arguing.
Cutbacks contributed to increases in mothers’ reports of child externalizing behaviors
Overall, children’s externalizing behaviors, maternal stress, and financial cutbacks varied from call to call. On the other hand, fear of illness remained relatively stable across persons and had only minor changes between calls.
Our results indicate that financial cutbacks contributed to increases in mothers’ reports of child externalizing behaviors by increasing maternal stress between-families overall. In other words, the economic fallout from the pandemic may have initiated a process in which stress driven by financial cutbacks and or fear of illness spilled over into these families’ dynamics that contributed to an increase in their child’s externalizing behaviors.
Interestingly, the within-person analyses revealed spikes in mothers’ fears surrounding contracting COVID-19, and not financial cutbacks, had a significant impact on maternal stress and child externalizing behaviors. Thus, fluctuations in mothers’ fears about her or her family becoming infected with the virus, and not in financial cutbacks, spurred fluctuations in her stress. We hypothesize that maternal stress impacted child behaviors through changes in parent-child interactions, however, this was not explicitly examined in the study model.
Increase support for low-income families to limit impact of future crises
Throughout the pandemic, federal and state aid provided support to families who were struggling to make ends meet, yet Latinx families experienced fewer improvements in economic conditions compared to non-Latinx White families, suggesting that this support was not enough to reduce family stress processes among vulnerable Latinx families.
Many of the families surveyed in our study had at least one essential worker in the home, had limited paid sick leave, and were less likely to be in occupations that allowed them to work from home. Each day these families were employed in situations that increased the risk of illness, placed stress upon mothers. This stress was associated with greater reports of their children’s behavior problems. Had these parents been guaranteed better paid sick leave, the periods during which virus cases were increasing may not have created the same levels of stress in mothers—stress that spilled over into their family relationships. Greater economic support for vulnerable families in periods of increased societal stress, along with greater protections for workers with limited sick leave and schedule flexibility, would likely help to limit the impact of future crises on children in low-income families.
About the authors: Chase J. Boyer, Elisa Ugarte, and Andrea C. Buhler-Wassmann are PhD students at UC Davis. Leah C. Hibel is a professor of human development and family studies at UC Davis.