Neurobiology of Stress, Volume 14, May 2021,
Objective: Information about the adverse effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on adolescent and adult mental health is growing, yet the impacts on preschool children are only emerging. Importantly, environmental factors that augment or protect from the multidimensional and stressful influences of the pandemic on emotional development of young children are poorly understood. Methods: Depressive symptoms in 169 preschool children (mean age 4.1 years) were assessed with the Preschool Feelings Checklist during a state-wide stay-at-home order in Southern California. Mothers (46% Latinx) also reported on externalizing behaviors with the Strengths & Difficulties Questionnaire. To assess the role of environmental factors in child mental health we examined household income, food insecurity, parental essential worker status and loss of parental job, as well as preservation of the structure of children's daily experiences with the Family Routines Inventory. Results: Sixty-one percent of families' incomes were below the living wage and 50% had at least one parent who was an essential worker. Overall, preschoolers’ depressive and externalizing symptoms were elevated compared to pre-COVID norms. Practice of family routines robustly predicted better child mental health, and this protective effect persisted after covarying income, dual-parent status and food insecurity as well as maternal depression and stress. Conclusion: The stress of the COVID-19 pandemic is exacting a significant toll on the mental health of preschool children. Importantly, maintaining a structured, predicable home environment by adherence to family routines appears to mitigate these adverse effects, providing empiric basis for public health recommendations.