Predicting Emotion Changes during COVID-19: A Daily Diary Study in Youth

The COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly affected the mental health of children and adolescents. Identifying the predictors of emotional response to the pandemic is critical for prevention and intervention efforts. Given that the period of adolescence is characterized by high sensitivity to stress, teenagers may be especially sensitive to pandemic-related challenges.

In a recent study published in the Journal of Research on Adolescence, we investigated how the pandemic’s early stages affected adolescents’ emotional experiences, specifically in relation to COVID-related health worries and social isolation. In addition, our team aimed to better understand how children and adolescents differ in responding to COVID-related challenges by examining whether pre-pandemic emotion regulation strategies predicted emotion changes during the pandemic. Emotion regulation refers to the ability to control one’s own emotions. Different emotion regulation strategies can have both positive and negative effects on one’s emotional state. For example, savoring may help adolescents maintain their focus on positive experiences, whereas dampening may suppress one’s positive emotions. In contrast, adolescents responding to negative emotions may use problem-solving, an active search for solutions. Though they may also ruminate, which involves engaging in repetitive thinking about the negative experience.

Methods. To examine how these emotion regulation strategies may affect both positive and negative emotions, we gave participants daily surveys that asked about their everyday life, specifically emotional experiences, over several weeks (Wave 1 lasted 3 weeks and Wave 2 lasted 4 weeks). 115 children and adolescents (aged 9-15, 62 girls and 53 boys) participated in both Wave 1 (collected a year before COVID) and Wave 2 (during the first months of COVID). The sample was predominantly white (73%). We hypothesized that the use of emotion regulation strategies pre-COVID would predict changes in emotion during COVID-19. However, this would only be true for those experiencing less COVID-related worries and isolation.

Results. Both children and adolescents experienced significantly more negative emotions during the first stages of the pandemic (vs. before), but no significant changes were found in positive emotions. Additionally, the extent to which one’s negative emotions fluctuated did not change significantly, but positive emotions were more stable during COVID. Frequent use of savoring prior to COVID-19 predicted greater and more stable positive emotions during COVID-19, whereas frequent use of dampening predicted decreases in positive emotions. Similarly, more rumination pre-COVID predicted increases in negative emotions.

The association between pre-COVID positive emotion regulation strategies and positive emotion was only significant for adolescents experiencing low levels of COVID-related isolation.

Similarly, greater use of rumination predicted higher levels of negative emotion and greater negative emotion variability, but only for those experiencing low levels of COVID-related worries. Individual differences in emotion regulation strategy use may predict emotion during COVID, but not for individuals experiencing high levels of COVID-related impacts.

Applications. First, we investigated positive and negative emotion separately, putting a special focus on positive emotion as a potential protective factor for better psychological outcomes in times of crisis. We also evaluated COVID-related impact by measuring subjective experiences of social isolation and worries about infection. This allows assessment of individuals’ psychological burden during the pandemic, beyond the objective changes in life.

These results highlight the significance of pre-existing emotion regulation strategies in helping children and adolescents adapt to future stressors. As such, emotion regulation skills training can provide adolescents lasting mental health support, especially those at a greater risk for experiencing difficulties responding to stressful life events. Specifically, the effectiveness of pre-existing emotion regulation strategies is limited when stress is high, suggesting that teaching distress tolerance skills and self-soothing exercises may be a crucial first step to improve stress responses in children and adolescents.

Highlighting the importance of positive emotion in how children and adolescents respond to stress, our findings have direct implications for clinical practice and public health. Higher levels of positive emotions and related emotion regulation strategies can protect the mental health of children and adolescents. Parents, educators, and healthcare professionals can better support children and adolescents’ psychological development by guiding them to explore pleasant activities that accumulate positive emotions and build up stress tolerance.

Mackenzie L. Creighton is a senior undergraduate student at Quinnipiac University, and she is majoring in Criminal Justice and Psychology, with a concentration in Applied Clinical Science. Her research interests include cognition, emotion regulation, criminality, antisocial behavior, aggression, substance use/ abuse, and in general topics that can be applied to and give insight into the criminal justice system and the offender population.

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