- 40% of parents are extremely or very concerned about their children's mental health.
- Parental anxiety about children's development and growth is completely normal
- If your child sees you taking care of your mental health, they will value theirs as well.
As parents there’s so much on our plates. From financial, work and family obligations to providing a supportive, stable home during what has been unstable and unsettling times. These factors along with rising worry about the mental and physical health of our children contributes greatly to parental fatigue and burnout. For parents, the findings from the newest study by the Pew Research Center about “Parenting in America Today'' will come as no surprise. The main takeaway states that 40% of parents are extremely or very concerned about their children's mental health. And unfortunately, this is for good reason. The CDC found that 1 in 5 children ages 12–17 years have recently experienced a major depressive episode, more than 1 in 3 high school students reported feeling sad or hopeless and nearly 1 in 5 seriously considered attempting suicide.
These are frightening statistics, so it makes sense why parents today are more worried than ever about the mental state of their children. But rather than talk about the numbers and how scary they are, I think it’s more important to dig into what this all means and how we can support ourselves as parents (like the age old ‘put on your oxygen mask first’ speech tells us to!), while continuing to support our children.
First, you need to remember that you are not alone. The data supports what you may be feeling. As parents who love unconditionally, we not only feel for our child, but feel with our child. Someone bullying them at school rips apart our heart and makes us wish that we could take on that pain. It is our empathy that allows the deep connection we have with our children, but that empathy also brings us the same painful emotions they are experiencing. It can lead to emotional, cognitive and physical exhaustion. It doesn’t help that our world has become more complicated and contradictory. A world that has become harder to comprehend for ourselves let alone navigate for our children.
So then what can we do? Well, there is no “one-size-fits-all” guide. However, breaking things down into more manageable pieces will help us not only help ourselves, but in turn have enough mental and emotional fortitude to give back to our children:
- Invest in ourselves. Parents are probably the worst group of people I know at taking time for themselves. However, a parent’s mental health has major effects on a child’s mental health, for better or for worse. Proper sleep, diet and exercise are paramount in times of distress. Sometimes it can be as simple as taking a few minutes to go outside for a walk, committing to less screen time at night, or even taking time to indulge in a hobby that you may have had to have put aside while you were busy having children. Call a friend while you are doing dishes to catch up and socialize or try to have a coffee date with a friend or family member once a week. If your child sees you taking care of your mental health, they will value theirs as well.
- Try to be in the moment and practice mindfulness. It is easy to lay awake at night worrying about the future or dwelling on the past, especially when it comes to raising humans, but it is important to not waste the little emotional energy we have left in the tank as parents on either of these things. Focus on what you can change and do now. These days, this is referred to as ‘mindfulness’. Mindfulness is about focusing your awareness on the present, while also acknowledging and accepting your emotional and physical feelings and thoughts.
- Identify the size of the concern. Try to identify and understand if there are real and imminent threats to the mental, emotional and physical well-being of your child, or if you are just worrying about the smaller things unnecessarily. Talk to your child to try to understand what is actually going on and if you have a true reason to be worried. If you find it hard to have serious talks with your child, try taking them out for a casual activity like a walk around the neighborhood or go get ice cream. Try to make them feel comfortable, truly heard and not in a position of being judged. They will then be more willing to give you an honest account of the situation.
- Help protect your children by decreasing harmful activities and suggesting positive ones. For example, I’ve talked about trying to limit their time on social media to help improve a child’s mental health. Encourage them to try out a new activity at school or a class at the local community center. Be more proactive about suggesting time with friends or talk about ways they can get more sleep at night. If you can encourage and help your child to fit more positive activities into their day, while cutting out ones that are damaging, it will undoubtedly improve their mental health.
- Discover helpful resources. There are tons of helpful resources out there for parents who feel like they are constantly worrying about their children’s mental health and need guidance. Reach out to other parents to see what has worked for them when they've experienced parental anxiety. Sharing ideas and resources with other parents can be incredibly helpful and cathartic. Lastly, you can always talk to a therapist. Therapy can be one of the best ways to decrease your anxiety and put a plan in place to help you feel better.
Again, remember you are not alone with these feelings. You worry because you love your child and want the best for them, and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, it is important as parents for us to identify when our worries have gotten out of hand and are hurting us or our children, more than helping. Then, we can figure out how we can channel our immense love for our children and desire for them to live happy, healthy lives into beneficial action.
Pew Research Center. Parenting in America Today Mental health concerns top the list of worries for parents; most say being a parent is harder than they expected
CDC. Children’s Mental Health: Understanding an Ongoing Public Health Concern
Children’s mental health tops list of parent worries, survey finds https://www.cnn.com/2023/01/31/health/mental-health-parenting-survey/index.html
APA research/trends focus for 2023: Kids’ mental health https://www.apa.org/monitor/2023/01/trends-improving-youth-mental-health
Surgeon General’s advice that kids 13 y/o should not have social media accounts (1/31/23): https://www.cnn.com/2023/01/29/health/surgeon-general-social-media/index.html