Protecting Adolescents from Emotional Maladjustment during the COVID-19 Pandemic: Adolescents’ Coping and Parents’ Reactions to Adolescents’ Negative Emotions

By Zeyi Shi & Qian Wang, Society for Research on Adolescence

Shi, Z. and Wang, Q. (2021) Chinese Adolescents’ Coping with COVID-19: Relationships with Emotional Maladjustment and Parental Reactions to Negative Emotions. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 31 (3), 645-656.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, adolescents may encounter various stressful events (e.g., compulsory quarantine, changes in modes of learning during school closure, and increased conflicts with family members during home confinement), which may lead to their emotional maladjustment. This research by Shi and Wang (2021) examined adolescents’ own ways of coping with pandemic-related stress, and how their parents’ ways of reacting to their negative emotions may help protect adolescents from experiencing negative emotions, depression, and anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic in China.

Prior Western research in non-pandemic contexts has identified two typical ways of coping in the face of stressful events and their effects on mental health (Compas et al., 2017; Ebata & Moos, 1991):

  •  Approach coping (e.g., seeking help, making plans for problem solving, or thinking positively of the situation) is associated with dampened emotional maladjustment.
  • Avoidance coping (e.g., pretending that nothing happened, wishful thinking, or being mad at someone else) is associated with heightened emotional maladjustment.

Moreover, prior research on parents’ emotion socialization (Eisenberg, Cumberland, & Spinrad, 1998; Power, 2004) has documented two distinct types of parents’ reactions to children’s negative emotions, that may shape children’s coping differentially:

  •  Parents’ supportive reactions (e.g., encouraging children’s emotional expression, comforting children, helping children with the problem encountered) provide children with opportunities to learn effective means of dealing with stressful situations and boost their confidence to handle challenges, thus enabling them to adopt an approach rather than avoidance coping.
  • Parents’ non-supportive reactions (e.g., punishing children’s emotion expression, becoming distressed at children’s negative emotions themselves) convey the message that it is not okay for children to express negative emotions and that problems are to be avoided, thereby leading children to use avoidance rather than approach coping.

Yet it remains unclear how parents’ emotional socialization may affect the development of coping during adolescence in non-Western cultures, and how adolescents’ coping may make a difference in their mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Our longitudinal study investigated these two important issues.

A two-wave study in China spanning before, and after the COVID-19 outbreak

Chinese early adolescents (mean age = 12.18 years; 103 girls, 110 boys) in Shanghai, a metropolis on the east coast of China completed a survey twice. Time 1 was one year before the COVID-19 outbreak in China (December 2018), where adolescents reported on their mothers’ and fathers’ reactions to their negative emotions in daily family interactions, and their own emotional maladjustment (indicated by their experience of negative emotions, depression, and anxiety).

At Time 2, which was about five months after the outbreak in China (May 2020), adolescents reported on their coping with pandemic-related stressors, and their emotional maladjustment during the pandemic. By the end of May, 2020, there were  83,001 infected cases and 4,634 deaths due to COVID-19 in mainland China. Although the numbers of daily confirmed cases of COVID-19 during this period were small (e.g., two confirmed cases on May 30th, 2020; the National Health Commission, 2020) and economic activities were starting to be resumed (e.g., employees returning to work), pandemic control measures including school closure were still observed strictly in Shanghai.

Key Findings

We found that:

  • On average, Chinese adolescents’ emotional maladjustment did not change significantly from Time 1 to Time 2, despite their self-acknowledgment of being distressed by pandemic-related stressors (e.g., difficulty with online learning during school closure, and increased conflicts with family members during home confinement).
  • There were notable individual differences in Chinese adolescents’ emotional maladjustment, coping, and perceived parental emotion socialization, demonstrating the following developmental dynamics:
    • Adolescents who perceived their parents (whether mothers or fathers) to react supportively to their negative emotions before the pandemic used more approach coping and less avoidance coping in the face of pandemic-related stressors, and in turn were less maladjusted emotionally during the pandemic.
    • Adolescents who perceived their parents (whether mothers or fathers) to react non-supportively to their negative emotions before the pandemic were more likely to cope with pandemic-related stress in an avoidant manner, and in turn experienced greater emotional maladjustment during the pandemic.
  • Adolescents perceived fathers, compared to mothers, to be less supportive and more non-supportive in reaction to their negative emotions.

Practical implications of the findings for adolescents’ mental health

  • Despite potential threats of the COVID-19 pandemic to adolescents’ emotional well-being, individual differences and resilience are evident in the current sample of Chinese adolescents, who on average did not experience significantly heightened emotional maladjustment five months after the outbreak in China.
  • Two-pronged interventions that both cultivate adolescents’ effective coping (e.g., more approach coping and less avoidance coping) and optimize parents’ reactions to adolescents’ negative emotions (e.g., more supportive and less non-supportive reactions) may be advocated and implemented to safeguard and foster adolescents’ well-being during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. Examples include the Life Skills Training (LST)intervention that teaches adolescents effective skills (e.g., reappraising a negative event positively) to cope with stress (Botvin & Griffin, 2015), and Tuning in to Teens (TINT) parenting program that coaches parents to adopt empathetic and constructive (vs. punitive or helpless) responses to adolescents’ emotions (Kehoe, Havighurst, & Harley, 2014).
  • And fathers may be particularly targeted in such interventions given their relatively less use of supportive and greater use of non-supportive reactions compared to mothers.

The full article can be found here http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/jora.12649

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