Abstract: COVID, Family Stress, and the Behaviors of School Age Children (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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COVID, Family Stress, and the Behaviors of School Age Children

Thursday, January 12, 2023
Hospitality 1 - Room 443, 4th Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Lily Ross, EdD, Senior Lecturer, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA
Lucinda Okine, MSW, PhD student, USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA
Gil Sosnik, MSW, Student, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA
Julie Cederbaum, MSW, MPH, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA
Background: The COVID-19 pandemic and stay-at-home orders required families to make dramatic shifts, including many elementary school aged children participating in online learning. Parental stress is known to have substantially increased during the COVID-19 pandemic and has not returned to pre-COVID levels, having the potential to impact the stability and wellbeing of the family system. Using the Family Stress Model as a framework, this work explored the associations between parental stress, parenting and co-parenting behaviors, and in turn, children’s problem behaviors.

Methods: Data were collected through an on-line survey of 195 parents of school age children (5-11 years) between January and March of 2021 from California where public health guidelines required that public schools to remain remote, with exceptions for students with IEPs. Parents were recruited through local schools and through on-line parent social media groups. Along with demographics, respondents reported on their current level of stress (Perceived Stress Scale), partner conflict (Romantic Partner Conflict Scale), parenting behaviors (Parenting Sense of Competence Scale), children’s behavior problems (Brief Problem Monitor), and social support (Family Support Scale). Structural equation modeling was used to explore all paths from parental stress through the mediating Family Stress Model constructs to children’s behaviors.

Results: Parents were primarily female (88%), white (62%), working from home (78%), and had a child attending schools exclusively online (88.7%). There was a significant indirect path from parental stress via parenting sense of competence to child behavior problems (β = .51 p < .001). Greater parenting stress in the context of COVID was associated with poorer parental sense of competence (β = - 0.83, p < .001) and more reported co-parenting problems (β = .031, p < .001). Additionally, co-parenting problems were associated with poorer parenting sense of competence (r = -0.58, p < .001). In turn, parents who reported poorer parenting sense of competence were more likely to report behavior problem in their child (β = - 0.54, p < .001). Those who reported family support reported less stress, higher sense of competence, fewer co-parenting and child behavior problems. There were no significant associations with demographic variables.

Discussion: The stress experienced by parents during the COVID-19 pandemic was high and sustained; these experiences have the potential to create fissures in the family system that impact the behaviors of children. Findings suggest the need to address parent-specific stressors in child and family interventions for children presenting with behavioral challenges. Specifically, interventions focused on strategies to mitigate the impact of parenting stress on parenting behaviors can help mitigate mental distress in children.