The present study aimed to identify active-avoidant coping profiles in children and investigated their association with internalizing symptoms over time during the COVID-19 pandemic. With latent profile analysis, the current study revealed a four-group model of active-avoidant coping profiles: Low Active copers, High Active copers, Balanced copers, and Avoidant copers. We didn’t find significant difference between avoidant and active coping profiles by gender, age or birthplace. Contrary to previous studies which suggested that females showed higher level of avoidant coping than males , girls were not more likely to be categorized into Avoidant copers than boys. Also, the study by Aldridge  has found that active copers are marginally older than other groups, which was not replicated in our sample of children.
Our results suggested that non-clinical primary school children adopted both active and avoidant coping styles simultaneously, although the difference between the level of avoidant and active coping style varied across individuals. The majority (88.8%) of primary school children showed higher level of active coping style than avoidant coping style. Among them, 53% of children showed High Active copers profile which had relatively large difference between active and avoidant coping style. A small group of children (11.3%) showed aberrant coping patterns distinct from the majority of the participants. Among them, 9.3% of participants had similarly high level of both avoidant and active coping style. In contrast, 2% had higher avoidant coping style than active coping style. High and Low Active copers as well as Avoidant copers profiles in children revealed by the present study were comparable to Active copers and Avoidant copers identified in studies on coping profiles in adolescence by Aldridge and Roesch . In the findings from Perzow  and Herres , adolescent active copers showed a high level of all coping styles, and they scored the highest on anxiety and depression symptoms. Consistently, we found avoidant copers who had the highest level of both avoidant and active coping styles showed the highest anxiety and depression symptoms.
Our results showed that Low and High Active copers were related to lower anxiety and depression symptoms than Balanced and Avoidant copers. Children who relied more on active coping style than avoidant coping style had lower anxiety and depression symptoms. Consistent with previous studies, these findings further supported that active coping style was an adaptive coping style, and avoidant coping style was a maladaptive coping style [35, 36]. In studies by Perzow  and Herres , adolescent Active copers are those who showed high level of all coping styles, and they scored the highest on anxiety and depression symptoms. Consistently, our study found that Avoidant copers who had the highest level of both avoidant and active coping styles showed the highest anxiety and depression symptoms. High Active copers had larger difference between active and avoidant coping style than Low Active copers. High Active copers had lower depression symptoms than Low Active copers, but they did not differ in anxiety symptoms. Therefore, it was speculated that depression symptoms might be more subject to increase in the difference between active and avoidant coping style than anxiety symptoms.
Balanced copers had higher anxiety and depression symptoms than Low and High Active copers, while they had lower anxiety and depression symptoms than Avoidant copers. This provided the first evidence that for children, having similarly high active and avoidant coping style was more maladaptive than having significantly higher level of active coping style, but was more adaptive than having significantly higher level of avoidant coping style. According to the reinforcement sensitivity theory , behavioral inhibition system (BIS) was related to high sensitivity to punishment and motivation to avoid threats, while behavioural approach system (BAS) was associated with high sensitivity to rewards and motivation to seek rewards . It has been shown that avoidant coping is related to BIS, and active coping is related to BAS . Child balanced copers may have equally activated BIS and BAS. Therefore, they are motivated by the two incompatible needs to attain potential rewards and to avoid threats. The activation of the two inconsistent drives may result in approach-avoidant conflict . When children avoid addressing problems, they may start to feel anxious or depressive about losing the potential rewards; however, when they switch to active coping style, they feel motivated to avoid problems to reduce stress. Due to this constant conflict in the two motivations, Balanced copers might have higher anxiety and depression than children who rely more on active coping style.
Our study adopted longitudinal design to investigate how coping profiles prospectively affect changes in anxiety and depression symptoms during the COVID-19 pandemic. Existing longitudinal research on coping profiles are insufficient. Such research can provide valuable implications on whether coping profiles affect emotional adjustment to a stressful situation over time. Our study showed that overall, anxiety and depression level decreased from T1 to T2, despite higher risk of COVID-19 virus infection during T2. The reduction of anxiety and depression might reflect primary school children’s improved ability to cope with stress during the COVID-19 pandemic. Our results showed that children’s active-avoidant coping profiles could affect changes in children’s depression level over a period of 6 months. Child avoidant copers reported slighter decrease in depression from T1 to T2 than High Active copers and Balanced copers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Thus, Avoidant copers might have poorer emotional adjustment to a stressful situation. This finding might help identify vulnerable children that have low resilience against internalizing symptoms during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Our findings suggest that to improve coping profiles for children exposed to the pandemic, focusing on the difference between active and avoidant coping styles is warranted, rather than solely on active or avoidant coping styles. An effective intervention helps children rely more on active coping style than on avoidant coping style, instead of reducing avoidant coping style alone. Cognitive-behavioral techniques can help prevent anxiety and depression symptoms . In addition to exposure therapy which helps reduce avoidance, it may be important to apply problem-solving skills training to dispositional Avoidant and Balanced copers to increase the use of active coping over avoidant coping .
First, we only conducted self-report measures of coping styles, which may be subject to biases. Second, the age range of primary school children was from 9 to 11 years. The limited age range may cause failure to detect the effect of age on psychological variables. Also, it should be cautious about generalizing the findings to other age groups. The use of the latent profile analysis revealed a very small group of Avoidant copers which only included 2% of the participants. The unequal sample sizes for each group of active-avoidant coping profiles could affect the type one error level and influence the results. Also, the study focused on the distinction between active and avoidant coping styles. Future research could examine if children’s coping patterns involving other coping styles were related to changes in depression and anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic. In this study, we found that internalizing symptoms decreased over 6 months during the pandemic. Future studies may investigate whether improving children’s active-avoidant coping profiles related to changes in internalizing symptoms in the COVID-19 pandemic.
In conclusion, the study revealed four heterogeneous dispositional active-avoidant coping profiles that were classified based on the difference between active and avoidant coping styles: Low Active copers, High Active copers, Balanced copers, and Avoidant copers. Our findings suggested that Low and High Active copers were related to less anxiety and depression symptoms than Balanced and Avoidant copers. Also, Avoidant copers were related to less reduction in depression symptoms during the COVID-19 pandemic than High Active copers and Balanced copers. The findings might provide critical implications about improving children’s coping profiles to reduce internalizing symptoms in children during COVID-19.