In a 2020 survey, 71% of parents said they believed the pandemic had damaged their children’s mental health. The American Academy of Pediatrics declared a National Child Mental Health Emergency in October 2021, citing “high” child mental health issues.
In 2022, the Biden administration developed a comprehensive strategy and, through multiple sources, has secured a significant amount, including $300 million, through a bipartisan agreement, committed to a national response to the children’s mental health crisis.
But what is often missing from this national conversation is the importance of acknowledging parents’ mental health and the effect that parents’ mental well-being has on their children’s. Decades of research clearly show that the mental health of parents and their children is inextricably linked.
As an assistant professor of child and family development whose research focuses on child parenting and mental health, I too often see the mental health of parents—or other caregivers acting in the role of parents, such as grandparents or foster parents—overlooked. seen in supporting children’s mental health. Until that gap is closed, efforts to address the mental health crisis in children and teens are likely to fall short.
The pandemic is taking its toll on parents
The work of multiple researchers, including my own group, shows that parents reported alarmingly high rates of mental health problems during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In my own work on the subject, a 2021 study found that 34% of parents reported increased anxiety symptoms, and about 28% of them reported depression symptoms that were clinically concerning.
These rates were similar to other reports, and they suggest that parents had higher levels of mental health needs than before the pandemic. The preponderance of research into the pandemic’s toll on parents’ and children’s mental health was in 2020 and 2021, so it’s not yet clear whether mental health needs have decreased as the pandemic has eased or not.
Pass on the pain
The psychological health of parents is important in itself, as they often experience stress and need support. But research also makes it clear that the well-being of parents is closely linked to that of their child. Parents with mental health problems often have children with mental health problems, and vice versa.
This interplay is complex and varied and includes genetics as well as environmental factors such as exposure to stress or trauma. Parental well-being has a direct impact on the overall structure and functioning of the home environment, such as adherence to daily routines, and the quality of the relationship between parent and child.
For example, when parents experience depression, they often express more negative emotions — such as anger and irritability — with their children. They are also less consistent in discipline and less involved in the parent-child relationship. As a result of this stress at home, their children can also develop depression and other problems, such as anxiety or behavior problems.
Children of parents with high levels of anxiety are at risk for both anxiety and depression, which in turn are associated with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. And ADHD is known to be highly heritable: One study found that about 50% of children with ADHD also had a parent with ADHD.
Parents’ mental well-being is affected by the amount of stress they experience, such as economic hardship, inadequate childcare and competitive pressures from work and family. When parents receive social support from family, friends, their community or the school system, studies show they are less likely to struggle with anxiety or depression.
Treatment for parents also helps children
In a recent review of parental depression, researchers reported that children who receive mental health care often have parents with depression, and often the parents’ depression goes untreated. Importantly, the review also found that when parents are treated for depression and their depressive symptoms improve, their children’s psychiatric symptoms are reduced and overall functioning improves. It also concluded that the treatment of parental and child mental health problems is rarely integrated.
However, there are emerging approaches to bring the two together, including screening for and treating mental health problems of both parents and children in primary care for children. While this approach to identifying and treating psychiatric conditions is new, studies show it holds promise for simultaneously reducing depression symptoms in both parents and children.
When parents are unable to get effective treatment for their psychiatric conditions due to their busy schedules, inability to afford it, stigma against mental health care, or the shortage of caregivers, children are also at risk for mental health problems. On the other hand, if parents receive evidence-based mental health services such as cognitive behavioral therapy, children benefit as well.
Research also shows that a family-centered approach to mental health care that takes into account parental needs, family context, and the parent-child relationship can best support both children and their parents.
So often parents feel they have to sit back on what they consider to be their children’s most important needs. But just as when airline flight attendants instruct adults at the start of every flight to put on their own safety mask first, parents should know the importance of prioritizing their own well-being to promote their children’s health.
One concrete action parents can take is to seek out family treatments. This can be a challenging process, but talking to their child’s pediatrician about specific referrals for this type of care can be a good place to start. If those options are not available, parents should ensure that they are involved in their child’s mental health care and that what is learned during treatment is applied to their family’s daily life. They should also refer to their own mental health services if necessary.
Ultimately, the mental health crisis of children cannot be resolved without prioritizing parents as well. British psychiatrist John Bowlby is widely recognized as the founder of attachment theory, the study of the importance of early relationships between infants and their caregivers. Bowlby often expressed the sentiment that “a society that values its children should cherish their parents”.
Lucy (Kathleen) McGoron, Assistant Professor of Child and Family Development, Wayne State University
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.