Parents: You Matter, Too

New research suggests that prioritizing your well-being is anything but selfish.

Posted Aug 20, 2019

Katie Emslie/Unsplash
Source: Katie Emslie/Unsplash

Though the suggestion to take time for “self-care” is frequently brought up in parenting circles, it is just as often laughed off as a luxury that parenthood simply does not allow. Yet, recent research1 suggests that parental well-being may impact not only one’s ability to parent effectively, but also the mental health of the little ones whose needs parents typically put first. 

It’s Not Only You Who Suffers

Our emotions are like waves that come and go, with some being more intense than others. Many times, these fluctuations in our mood go unnoticed by others, including our kids. However, when we let our emotions control or define us, we inadvertently intensify these feelings and invite them to stick around for longer than need be. 

Unfortunately, this can result in those closest to us also getting swept up in the tide of our distress. This can be particularly unsettling for our children, who rely on our calm and loving presence in order to navigate their own strong emotions.2 Accordingly, when we are caught in bouts of overwhelming stress, anxiety, sadness, anger, or fatigue, there is a good chance that our children are struggling alongside us. Indeed, research consistently indicates a relationship between the anxious and depressive symptoms of parents and their children.3,4 

Misery Loves Company

Efforts to understand why anxiety and depression frequently run in families have implicated both genetics and environmental factors, particularly parenting, in the intergenerational transmission of these problems. Some children are born more fearful or inhibited than others and this behavioral inhibition places children at an elevated risk for internalizing problems such as anxiety and depression.5 Notably, however, not all behaviorally inhibited children develop internalizing disorders, and some children become anxious or depressed even though they were not behaviorally inhibited as infants. Hence the importance of environmental factors, particularly parenting. 

In an attempt to identify the parenting variables that contribute to the emergence of childhood anxiety disorders and internalizing problems, Bayer and colleagues1 followed a group of 545 behaviorally inhibited preschoolers and their primary caregivers over a two-year period. The researchers found that higher levels of parental stress, anxiety, and depression were all related to greater use of over-involved/protective parenting and/or harsh parenting. Furthermore, higher levels of each of these parenting symptoms and practices predicted child anxiety disorders and greater internalizing problems at ages 5 and 6. 

Making Sense of These Links

When depressed or anxious, we tend to interpret ambiguous situations as being negative or threatening.6 Accordingly, it is not surprising that stress, anxiety, and depression might lead us to engage in intrusive or overly protective behaviors in order to prevent our children from being hurt in some way. For example, we may unnecessarily limit the extent to which our children are allowed to explore their environment out of fear that they might get an injury—big or small. Or, when our child is upset, we may swoop in and try to “fix” whatever is upsetting them.

While well-intentioned, these behaviors restrict our children’s opportunities to learn how to work through day-to-day challenges and may communicate to them that we do not believe that they are capable of handling such difficulties. This perceived lack of trust in them, coupled with a dearth of opportunities to sit with discomfort and conquer their fears may eventually give rise to symptoms of anxiety and depression. 

Similarly, the exhaustion, low tolerance for distress, and high need for control that tend to accompany chronic stress, anxiety, and depression may make it hard for parents who are struggling with these problems to be as patient as they would like to be with their children. As a result, they might demand obedience and use harsh parenting practices such as yelling, threatening, scolding, or handling their children roughly in an attempt to get compliance. For example, parents might angrily punish a child who has hit her sibling by grabbing her arm forcefully and imposing an illogical consequence, such as taking away dessert for the day. 

This style of parenting is easy to fall into, especially when we are stressed or grappling with our own emotional difficulties, but it is problematic as it fails to address the feelings that led the child to hit or “misbehave” in the first place. As a result, children whose parents engage in such harsh parenting behaviors may frequently find themselves left alone with intense emotions and may resort to using maladaptive coping mechanisms in their attempts to deal with these powerful feelings. In the absence of much needed parental guidance in emotion regulation, internalizing problems may soon emerge. 

What If You are Stressed, Anxious, or Depressed? 

As the title of this article suggests, if you are a parent who is battling with high levels of stress, anxiety, or depression, it is critical that you address these problems—if not for yourself, then at least for your children. Although some may benefit from reading self-help books or from non-traditional routes to healing, professional help in the form of therapy and/or psychotropic medication is often needed in order to adequately tackle these issues. This may require substantial courage, time, energy, and money, but it is one of the most important investments that you can make for your children. 

What Else Can You Do?

Given the findings from Bayer and colleagues1, you can take important steps to minimize the effects that a dip in your well-being might have on your children, in addition to making self-care a priority. First, you can give your children as much autonomy as possible and encourage them to approach, rather than avoid, age-appropriate challenges. Even small things like resisting urges to direct your children’s play or to step in and troubleshoot at the first sign of frustration can be immensely helpful. 

Second, you can aim to eliminate harsh parenting practices like shouting and threatening from your parenting toolkit. As radical as it may sound, this will not open the door for your children to walk all over you. The key is to adopt a respectful approach, such as that delineated by Janet Lansbury, in which you acknowledge your children's feelings while letting them know that you will help them follow whatever limits you have set. For example, you might calmly and confidently say, “you are so upset and I can’t let you hit” while gently blocking any additional attempts to hit. 

As is the case with prioritizing your own well-being, following these recommendations will likely take a tremendous amount of commitment and faith. Once again, however, the findings from Bayer and colleagues1 suggest that the effort required to make these changes will be entirely worth your, and your child’s, while.

References

1. Bayer, J.K., Morgan, A., Prendergast, L.A., Beatson, R., Gilbertson, T., ...Rapee, R.M. (2019). Predicting temperamentally inhibited young children's clinical level anxiety and internalizing problems from parenting and parent wellbeing: a population study. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 47, 1165-1181. doi: 10.1007/s10802-018-0442-6

2. Lantieri, L. & Goleman, D.P. (2008). Building emotional intelligence: Techniques to cultivate inner strength in children. Boulder, Canada: Sounds True. 

3. Beardslee, W.R. & Wheelock, I. (1994). Children of parents with affective disorders: Empirical findings with clinical implications. In Reynolds, W.M. & Johnston, H.F. (Eds.), Handbook of depression in children and adolescents. Issues in clinical child psychology. Boston, MA: Springer. 

4. Lawrence, P.J., Murayama, K., & Creswell, C. (2019). Systematic review and meta-analysis: Anxiety and depressive disorders in offspring of parents with anxiety disorders. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 58, 46-60. doi:10.1016/j.jaac.2018.07.898

5. Paulus, F.W., Backes, A., Sander, C.S., Weber, M., & von Gontard, A. (2015). Anxiety disorders and behavioral inhibition in preschool children: A population-based study. Child Psychiatry and Human Development, 146, 150-157. doi: 10.1007/s10578-014-0460-8

6. Mogg, K. & Bradley, B.P. (2005). Attentional bias in generalized anxiety disorder versus depressive disorder. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 29, 29-45. doi:10.1007/s10608-005-1646-y