A prospective study published in the journal Child Development found that adolescents’ attachment security at age 12 predicted their engagement in prosocial and health protective behaviors three years later, during the COVID-19 pandemic. The study further found that this relationship was driven by the buffering effect of attachment security on psychological symptoms during the pandemic.
Convincing youth to follow COVID-19 public health measures has been somewhat tricky, as evidenced by reports of young people continuing to attend parties during the pandemic despite social distancing recommendations. This may be unsurprising, given that adolescence is a time of increased egocentrism and risk-taking.
Researchers Brianne R. Coulombe and Tuppett M. Yates proposed a pathway through which adolescents’ attachment security might impact their prosocial and health protective behaviors during the pandemic. Specifically, they proposed that adolescents with secure attachment should experience less psychological symptoms in response to the pandemic, and through this decrease in mental health symptoms, should be more likely to engage in positive behavior during the pandemic.
The theory follows the view that secure attachment between a child and caregiver prepares the child to process their emotions, develop empathy, adapt during times of stress, and ultimately be available to help others. A secure attachment relationship, defined by responsive and supportive parenting, should foster a youth’s ability to cope psychologically, and in turn, encourage their engagement in prosocial behaviors.
The researchers explored data from an ongoing, longitudinal study of youth and their parents recruited from southern California. The analysis focused on three waves of data. At age 12, the youth completed a self-report measure of attachment security and their parents reported on their prosocial behaviors (e.g., helping others who are hurt or upset). At age 14, the youth completed an assessment of mental health symptoms. At age 15, during the early stages of the COVID-19 restrictions in May 2020, the youth again reported on their mental health symptoms and additionally reported on their adherence to health protective behaviors like hand-washing, and prosocial behaviors like helping their community during the pandemic.
First, the researchers found that youth with more secure attachment at age 12 showed smaller-than-expected increases in psychological symptoms from age 14 (pre-pandemic) to age 15 (one month into lockdown). They also engaged in more prosocial and health protective behaviors during the pandemic.
Further, mediation analysis revealed a pathway whereby adolescents’ attachment security led to smaller increases in psychological symptoms, which in turn led to increased prosocial and health protective behaviors. In other words, adolescents with secure attachment were more likely to engage in positive behaviors during the pandemic, and it appeared that this was at least partly due to the protective effect of secure attachment on mental health during the crisis.
The findings suggest that improving the parent-child relationship may be key to not only boosting adolescent mental health but to encouraging adolescents’ health protective and prosocial behavior during public health crises. Although attachment styles are tough to modify within a short period of time, evidence suggests that parenting practices can be effectively addressed in a few sessions.
Coulombe and Yates call adolescents “powerful agents of social change”, noting that brain development during this period can promote risk-taking behavior, but can also stimulate prosocial action. “By supporting our adolescents, we may engage our strongest allies, not only in the ongoing fight to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, but also in future efforts to negotiate threats to public health and well-being.”
Among limitations, the study authors note that they relied on adolescents’ self-reports of prosocial and health protective behaviors, which cannot be verified. Additionally, future research should include multiple assessments of prosocial behaviors that are specific to the pandemic.
The study, “Attachment security predicts adolescents’ prosocial and health protective responses to the COVID-19 pandemic”, was authored by Brianne R. Coulombe and Tuppett M. Yates.