Is Your Teen Just Grumpy? Or are you really struggling with mental health?

Learn more about our mental health series here.

More children are facing serious mental health problems in life after the pandemic. Sometimes parents struggle to know if their child is just a typical hormonal teenager struggling to become an adult, or if they are dealing with something more serious.

But research suggests that to help their children, parents and carers need to take a look at themselves and their own mental health.

It’s normal for teens to feel stress, but depression and anxiety disorders have definite symptoms, says Richard Weissbourd, faculty director of the Making Caring Common Project at Harvards Graduate School of Education.

When children are depressed, they often don’t eat well. They are not sleeping well. They are withdrawing from social activities, he says. They can be very moody and very irritable in a way that is very different from normal moodiness and irritability.

Weissbourds research with Making Caring Common explores the link between parent and adolescent mental health. In December 2022, he and his team conducted two national surveys, one of teenagers and young adults, and one of parents and caregivers that showed parents and teens experience anxiety and depression at roughly the same rate. Young adults are doing almost twice as badly as teenagers.

We’d have as much reason to sound the alarm about a parent or caregiver’s mental health crisis as we would about a teen’s mental health crisis, says Weissbourd. So we’re concerned about a lot of things that can go wrong when both parent and teen are anxious and depressed, and we’re trying to move things in a direction where parents and teens can be helpful to each other in these cases . situations

4 questions with Richard Weissbourd

How are the mental health of parents and children connected?

For parents, our well-being is often tied to how well our children are doing. When you’re anxious and depressed, it’s harder to be emotionally available to your teen and to be patient and steady like teens often need. This is how these negative cycles can start and that is why it is so important to break these cycles early.

How can parents better listen to their children?

I think it’s important for parents to recognize that even when they’re anxious and depressed, they’ve often learned a lot, developed coping strategies, [and] they have a lot to offer their children even in these situations. And I think part of it is that parents don’t have confidence that they can be useful to their children.

I also think that parents are often isolated and that when parents are able to maintain strong relationships with their partners, with friends outside of their family when they have enough support, they are much more likely to be emotionally available to their children and can listen to them and connect with their children.

Should parents talk to their children about their own mental health challenges?

When you’re depressed, you often withdraw, you’re often moody, you get angry suddenly in a way that scares a child. And the kids think there’s something wrong. And when a parent can say: This is not about you. This is something I’m experiencing, it can provide a great relief to a teenager and it can make the world make sense again.

This does not mean that parents have to talk about their depression a lot [or] anxiety and expect their children to play a therapeutic role with them. It is important when parents talk about depression [or] anxiety with their children, who also convey that they are managing it, that they are doing something to get help because it can be scary for a child to think that their parent’s depression [or] anxiety can get out of control in some way.

What is causing the rise in mental health problems among children and their parents?

I think there are a lot of things going on and they differ by race, culture, and class. What happens to rich kids is really different from what happens to low-income kids in many ways. In many middle and upper class communities, I worry that the pressure to achieve is so excessive. And when we ask teenagers, we give them a list of things that could be negatively influencing their mental health, pressure to achieve ranks first in the amount of stress.

We also find that teenagers are lonely and we find that teenagers feel that they have no meaning or purpose in their lives. About 30% or a third feel they have little or no meaning or purpose in their lives. I think the loss of faith-based communities, religion, so fewer people are observing, is troubling in many ways. I’m not suggesting that people suddenly become more religious, but you know that community is really important and the sense of purpose and meaning that faith-based communities can provide. There are structures in faith communities for dealing with trauma and grief and loss that can be very important for teenagers. So again, my point is not that we should suddenly become more religious. My point is that we need to think about how to reproduce these aspects of religion in secular life.

Samantha Raphelson produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Catherine Welch. Raphelson also adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on April 25, 2024.

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