Maternal Mental Health Mediates the Effects of Pandemic-Related Stressors on Adolescent Psychopathology During COVID-19

Liliana J. Lengua, University of Washington
Stephanie F. Thompson, University of Washington
Stephanie Gyuri Kim, Harvard University
Maya L. Rosen, Harvard University
Alexandra Rodman, Harvard University
Steven Kasparek, Harvard University
Makeda Mayes, University of Washington
Maureen Zalewski, University of Oregon
Andrew Meltzoff, University of Washington
Kate A. McLaughlin, Harvard University

Peer reviewed accepted manuscript.


Background: This study examined whether COVID-19-related maternal mental health changes contributed to changes in adolescent psychopathology. Methods: A community sample of 226 adolescents (12 years old before COVID-19) and their mothers were asked to complete COVID-19 surveys early in the pandemic (April–May 2020, adolescents 14 years) and approximately 6 months later (November 2020–January 2021). Surveys assessed pandemic-related stressors (health, financial, social, school, environment) and mental health. Results: Lower pre-pandemic family income-to-needs ratio was associated with higher pre-pandemic maternal mental health symptoms (anxiety, depression) and adolescent internalizing and externalizing problems, and with experiencing more pandemic-related stressors. Pandemic-related stressors predicted increases in maternal mental health symptoms, but not adolescent symptoms when other variables were covaried. Higher maternal mental health symptoms predicted concurrent increases in adolescent internalizing and externalizing. Maternal mental health mediated the effects of pre-pandemic income and pandemic-related stressors on adolescent internalizing and externalizing problems. Conclusions: Results indicate that adolescent mental health is closely tied to maternal mental health during community-level stressors such as COVID-19, and that pre-existing family economic context and adolescent symptoms increase risk for elevations in symptoms of psychopathology.