Army soldier putting his palm on top of his son and wife hands

Predicting Pandemic Pressures: Factors Shaping COVID-Related Stress in Military Families

Drew, A. L., Gregus, S. J., Steggerda, J. C., Slep, A. M. S., Herrera, C., Cavell, T. A., & Spencer, R. (2023). Pre-existing parental stress and youth internalizing symptoms predict parent-reported COVID-related stress in military families. Military Psychology.

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

About the Study

COVID-19 significantly disrupted family routines and their access to support all over America. Because of quarantine mandates, social distancing, and closures, many parents/guardians and their children experienced significantly more stress and other mental health issues. However, while COVID-19 has harmed all types of communities, little attention has been paid to how it affected military families. Evidence indicates they face repeated stresses (e.g., separations and relocations) that can interrupt employment and educational experiences, limit opportunities to develop community ties and harm the overall mental health of the family. The fact that many military families are less likely to seek help underscores the importance of understanding how COVID-19 affected military families. This study assesses the extent of pre-pandemic levels of parental internalizing symptoms & stress and children’s externalizing & internalizing symptoms predicted youth and family stress during COVID-19.

Main Findings:

  • Most military families and children experienced moderate stress during COVID-19, with many parents describing the adjustments to the pandemic as somewhat stressful for their respective families. 
  • Initial analyses indicated that parent internalizing symptoms, pre-pandemic parental stress, youth externalizing symptoms, and youth internalizing symptoms are associated with parent-reported COVID-related stress.
  • However, regression models showed that pre-pandemic parental stress was the only factor that correlated with youth and family COVID-related stress.
  • Youth internalizing symptoms before the pandemic predicted youth COVID-related stress in military families.
  • Parent-reported youth externalizing symptoms and parent internalizing symptoms were not significant predictors, possibly due to the covariance between these factors and parental stress, underscoring the need for further exploration of the interplay between parental stress and psychological symptoms in the context of the pandemic.

Implications for Mentoring

COVID-19 uniquely affected military families. While the pandemic significantly impacted everybody worldwide, military families had to simultaneously cope with disruptive experiences commonly associated with military life, such as frequent moves and parental separations during training and deployments. This study demonstrates that military parents who experienced a lot of stress and had children who had externalizing symptoms before the pandemic were more at-risk for COVID-19-related stress. Although the findings have implications for mental health professionals serving military families, it also has indirect suggestions for other practitioners, like mentors. Adults in youths’ social networks, like teachers, can play an important role in their well-being by monitoring their students’ struggles and providing additional assistance when needed. Similarly, taking the time to consider how family-related factors affect coping mechanisms for different family members can inform mentors on how to provide the most effective support. More efforts need to be made to help normalize the struggles of military families and reduce stigmas associated with seeking help. 

To read the full study, click here.