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The Critical Link Between Parent and Teen Mental Health

A new report shows a strong connection between parent and adolescent mental health, offers prevention strategies for teen anxiety and depression
Happy mother and daughter hugging

The medical community declared a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now a new report shines a light on another important aspect of the story — the influence that mental health challenges faced by parents and primary caregivers have on teens. 

“It’s a fundamental tenet of psychology that children don't grow up in isolation,” explains Richard Weissbourd, the study’s lead author and faculty director of the Making Caring Common Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “They grow up embedded in families, embedded in communities — and to understand the experience of teens, it's really important to understand their context.”

Caring for the Caregivers: The Critical Link Between Parent and Teen Mental Health is the first of three reports investigating potential causes and prevention strategies for teens and young adults suffering with mental illness in the United States.

Key findings:

  • The data collected by Weissbourd and the report’s co-authors, through two nationally representative surveys — one with teens and young adults and another with parents/caregivers — reveal parental anxiety and depression rates that are similar to those experienced by teens
  • In the survey 18% of parents reported anxiety and 13% depression, while 18% of teens had anxiety and 15% suffered from depression. (Depression and anxiety were defined as being depressed or anxious more than half the time over the two weeks prior to the survey.) 
  • Rates of depression and anxiety were higher for mothers and teen girls than fathers and teen boys.
  • More than a third of the teens surveyed had at least one parent suffering with anxiety or depression and close to 40% of the teens said they were at least “somewhat worried” about their parents’ mental health.
  • There is a strong link between the mental health of parents and the mental health of adolescents. According to the study, “depressed teens are about five times more likely than non-depressed teens to have a depressed parent, and anxious teens are about three times more likely than non-anxious teens to have an anxious parent.”

It takes a village — caring for the caregivers

More treatment providers are needed for teens and parents, particularly in under-resourced communities, but the researchers add that a critical way to prevent the many mental health problems that teens are experiencing is to improve the emotional health of parents — “to care for the caregivers.” 

They call for broader efforts by organizations including government agencies, policymakers, faith-based organizations, public libraries, employers, and schools, to support parents’ mental health and to assist parents in promoting their teens’ mental well-being.

Five strategies to support parents and help them to prevent anxiety and depression in teens:
  1. Listen to adolescents.  
    In their focus groups and interviews, the researchers heard many young people explain that they need their parents and caregivers to be better listeners and to be more proactive about checking in with them. The reports suggests that parents can become “important sounding boards and advisers to their teens” by approaching them with “openness and curiosity,” listening carefully, and empathizing with them “rather than judging or jumping to solutions.”
  2. Help teens develop coping skills.  
    Parents need basic facts about anxiety and depression, including the different forms and stages of the disorders and how to detect when a teen needs professional help. Governments and community institutions can run public education efforts to better inform parents. Providing resources for caregivers to use with their teens, including cognitive-behavior and stress-management strategies and advice for encouraging good sleep, nutrition, and technology habits, are also helpful. Parents may feel significant shame or stigma about their teens’ mental health struggles and/or their own and may need reassurance that anxiety and depression frequently have “a biological component” and are not a sign of “of weakness or a lack of will.”
  3. Support the mental health of caregivers and families.   
    Mental health providers “far too often” provide programs and interventions that treat teens in isolation rather than in the context of the broader family unit, the researchers say. They suggest expanding family therapy options and prioritizing resources for those at higher risk, including low-income and unemployed parents, parents with infants, new immigrant families, and those dealing with chronic medical problems or trauma. Parents also need help making supportive connections with one another. Reimagined public libraries that serve as community hubs and workplaces that help build community and give parents sufficient time off to create connections with others can help combat isolation and loneliness among parents and caregivers, the researchers say. 
  4. Help parents to talk about their own mental health challenges with children and teens.  
    Parents can be helped with age and culturally appropriate strategies for talking with their teens about their own struggles, so their children don’t blame themselves for their parents’ emotional difficulties. It can be helpful to have parents explain directly to their teens that they have an emotional problem that has nothing to do with them, for example. However, the researchers also warn that “too much disclosure can be frightening,” for children.
  5. Help teens find purpose and meaning through service and community programs.   
    Thirty-six percent of the teens surveyed said they found little or no “purpose or meaning in life” and the figure was even higher for the young adults who were surveyed, Weissbourd says. (There is a strong connection between lacking purpose in life and depression and anxiety.) He believes that the “failure to reproduce important aspects of religion in secular life, like coming-of-age rituals, gratitude practices, and communities where people can grieve together,” is part of the problem. 

Weissbourd and the other researchers suggest that, to help teens’ mental health, caregivers should steer young people towards activities that provide purpose and offer a break from self-concerns. One idea would be the creation of a federally run national service program that could encourage and incentivize youth to help their communities in some way, he says. High schools could also encourage more students to pursue a service year before going to college and colleges could expand their service programs.

Parents can also help teens “create an ethic of care, an ethic of service,” through less formal means, Weissbourd says. “It could be visiting your grandmother every week, helping out a neighbor with a serious disability, it could be supervising a younger sibling,” he explains.

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