Family vulnerability and disruption during the COVID-19 pandemic: prospective pathways to child maladjustment

Gregory M. Fosco, Carlie J. Sloan, Shichen Fang, Mark E. Feinberg

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


Background: This study evaluated two risk pathways that may account for increases in child internalizing and externalizing problems during the COVID-19 pandemic: one pathway operating through pre-existing family vulnerability and a second pathway operating through disruption in family functioning occurring in response to the pandemic. We assessed family disruption and family functioning with measures of key family-level and parenting dimensions, including family cohesion, conflict and routines, and parents’ harsh discipline, lax discipline and warmth. In all models, pre-pandemic parent emotional distress, financial strain and child maladjustment were included as covariates. Methods: The sample included 204 families, comprised of parents who had children (MAge = 4.17; 45.1% girls). Parents (MAge = 27.43) completed the first survey prior to COVID-19 onset in the United States, a second survey after COVID-19 onset in May 2020 and a third survey two weeks later. Results: Analyses were conducted in a model-building fashion, first computing structural equation models for each family and parenting dimension separately, then advancing significant dimensions into one integrated model for the family-level factors and a second model for parenting quality factors. Results provided more support for the family disruption hypothesis across all tests. In the family-level domain, decreases in family cohesion and increases in family conflict each uniquely predicted subsequent child maladjustment. In the parenting domain, increases in harsh discipline and lax discipline each uniquely predicted subsequent child maladjustment. Family routines and parental warmth were not associated with child adjustment. However, parents’ emotional distress prior to the pandemic exhibited a robust association with children’s internalizing problems. Conclusions: These findings indicate that efforts to support families in adapting to unique conditions of the pandemic will yield the greatest effect for child adjustment. Specifically, interventions should include efforts to help families maintain cohesion and manage conflict, and help parents minimize increases in harsh and lax discipline.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)47-57
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2022

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Pediatrics, Perinatology, and Child Health
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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