As parents, we’re invested in our kids’ happiness and well-being. For one thing, it’s our job. But the stakes feel higher now, too: In February, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report stating that nearly 3 in 5 teen girls in America felt persistently sad and hopeless, and 1 in 3 seriously considered attempting suicide. Both boys and girls reported increasing mental health challenges and suicidal thoughts.
But what about our own well-being? A report released this week from the Making Caring Common Project at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education seeks to sound the alarm on parental mental health, framing it as equally important — and linked to — our kids’ state of mind.
“Depressed and anxious parents are often wonderful parents despite — and sometimes because of — emotional challenges. But depression and anxiety in parents are linked to academic, emotional, and health problems in teens. This harm can be compounded when both a teen and one or both of their parents are depressed or anxious, and our data indicate that depressed parents are about 5 times more likely to have teens who are depressed, and anxious parents are about 3 times more likely to have teens who are anxious,” says Dr. Richard Weissbourd, who directs the project.
This hit home for me: I struggle with anxiety flare-ups, and I try to keep that from my kids as much as possible. But I’m sure there are times when I — when any of us — have been distracted, preoccupied, or not the best version of ourselves. Major depression affects 21 million American adults every year; 40 million are affected by anxiety disorders every year.
“We’ve been hyper-focused on teens, and we sort of pluck them out of their families. We talk a lot about how social media is what’s driving teen depression and anxiety, but we can’t look at teens in isolation,” Weissbourd says.
The report, “Caring for the Caregivers: The Critical Link Between Parent and Teen Mental Health,” shares several strategies to bridge that gap, with two important ways that parents’ mental health in particular can get more attention.
Community institutions and governments need to promote parents’ mental health. “Community institutions and governments at every level can engage in public education efforts that alert parents and caregivers to signs of depression and anxiety and offer resources for alleviating these challenges. Local professionals and citizens — all of us — also have a key role,” he says.
The report urges primary care physicians and pediatricians to check in with parents about their emotional health beyond the postpartum period.
“Pediatricians and general practitioners could be asking not just mothers of infants but mothers of teens about their emotional well-being. There could be a lot more information-sharing,” Weissbourd says.
The report also urges health centers, schools, faith-based organizations, workplaces, public libraries, and many other community institutions to do more to provide caregivers with information about anxiety and depression and also help cultivate supportive connections among parents. Social media and group text threads can only go so far.
“There are very few programs for parents of teens, places for moms or dads to get support when they’re struggling. There should be many more of those programs in the country, and they’re not particularly expensive. They’re much less expensive than individual therapy, for sure,” he says.
Parents can and should talk about their own mental health struggles with teens. This one stuck out at me. The report states that depressed parents are more likely to be critical, angry, and withdrawn — and that teens with depressed parents are prone to blaming themselves for their parents’ difficult moods. But sharing insights into your mental health — and coping strategies — might even help your kids feel less alone in their own struggles.
“If you’re an anxious parent, and you have an anxious teen, you can dial each other up. Things can get worse. Or you can [share] your experience, insights, wisdom, and coping strategies. If you can share those with your teen in constructive ways, it can be so helpful,” Weissbourd tells me.
Recently, my seventh-grader began panicking because we left him home alone with his brother for a couple of hours. The entire time we were gone, he texted: “Hello? Where are you? Hello?” Ping. Ping. Ping. All through dinner. We didn’t get dessert.
When I was his age, I couldn’t wait to stay home alone. But his triggers are different than mine, and I could totally relate to that helpless, frantic feeling. Instead of trying to talk him out of it, at bedtime I told him all about my own first panic attack. I validated his feelings and commiserated with him. I turned it into a story. And you know what? Now, he confides in me when he feels anxious (when he’s not on Snapchat, that is). I’m a sample size of one, but what can I say? It worked, because I became his ally. A real human with an internal world. Not just a parent.
While this doesn’t mean you should discuss your SSRI dosage with your adolescent, it’s actually OK to be open about your moods, “so that [your] children don’t interpret these harsh moods as a sign of their failings or as the withdrawal of affirmation or love,” the report says. “It can make a big difference if a parent simply tells a teen, ‘I’m struggling with some things right now. If I seem shut down or irritable, it’s not your fault.’”