Background: Family context can affect children's vulnerability to various stresses, but little is known regarding the role of family variables on children's reactions to natural disaster. This prospective study examined the influence of predisaster observed parenting behaviors and postdisaster parental stress on young children's distress following an earthquake.
Methods: Participants were 117 two-parent families with a child age 4–5 at the initial assessment. The families experienced different degrees of impact from the earthquake. Pre-earthquake family context comprised observations of parents’ positive and negative behaviors during a parent–child play task. Eight months after the earthquake, mothers reported symptoms of parental stress and children's distress.
Results: Earthquake impact and children's distress symptoms were moderately correlated (r = .44), but certain pre-earthquake parental behaviors moderated the relationship. The dose–response association between earthquake impact and children's symptoms did not hold for families in which fathers showed high levels of negative behaviors with daughters, or mothers showed low levels of positive behaviors with sons. In addition, results consistent with full mediation for boys (and partial mediation for girls) indicated that 86% of the total effect of earthquake impact on boys’ distress (and 29% on girls’ distress) occurred through the mediator of reported parental stress.
Conclusions: These findings demonstrate that young children's responses to an abrupt, negative environmental event, such as an earthquake, are influenced in part by the nature of the parent–child relationship prior to the event as well as by the responses parents exhibit following the event.