Young children's traumatic stress reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic: The long reach of mothers' adverse childhood experiences

J Affect Disord. 2022 Dec 1;318:130-138. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2022.08.061. Epub 2022 Aug 27.


Background: The COVID-19 pandemic has negatively impacted parental and child mental health; however, it is critical to examine this impact in the context of parental histories of adversity. We hypothesized that maternal adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and pandemic-related negative life events would predict child traumatic stress symptoms (TSS) and tested potential mediating pathways through maternal pandemic-related TSS and/or poorer maternal sensitivity during the pandemic.

Methods: Data were collected from a longitudinal sample of low-income, racially/ethnically diverse mothers and their children. Between May and November 2020, mothers (n = 111) of young children (M age = 7.42 years, SD = 0.45) completed questionnaires to assess their own and their child's pandemic-related TSS, exposure to pandemic-related negative events, and parent-child relationship quality. Maternal ACEs, maternal depression, parent-child relationship quality, and child internalizing symptoms had been assessed approximately 1-3 years prior.

Results: Structural equation analyses revealed that pandemic negative life events were indirectly associated with child TSS via greater maternal TSS. For mothers, recent pandemic-related negative events were associated with their own TSS, whereas maternal ACEs were not. Maternal ACEs directly predicted greater child TSS, with no evidence of mediation by either maternal TSS or maternal sensitivity.

Limitations: All measures were parent report, and pandemic-related measures were collected at the same time point.

Conclusions: Findings underscore the long reach of mothers' own adverse childhood experiences, highlighting the negative consequences of these prior traumatic exposures alongside current pandemic-related maternal trauma symptoms for children's adjustment during the pandemic.

Keywords: Adverse childhood events; COVID-19; Parent-child relationship; Traumatic stress.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adverse Childhood Experiences*
  • COVID-19* / epidemiology
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Mothers / psychology
  • Pandemics