It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on the mental health of children and parents.
In a 2020 survey, 71% of parents said they believe the pandemic has harmed their children’s mental health. The American Academy of Pediatrics declared a national child mental health emergency in October 2021, citing “soaring” rates of childhood mental health problems.
In 2022, the Biden administration developed a comprehensive strategy and committed a significant amount of money, including $300 million backed by a bipartisan agreement, to a national response to the children’s mental health crisis across multiple sources.
But what is often missing from this national conversation is the importance of acknowledging parental mental health and the effect parents’ mental well-being has on that of their children. Decades of research clearly demonstrate that the mental health of parents and their children are inextricably linked.
As an assistant professor of child and family development whose research focuses on parenting and children’s mental health, I see too often that the mental health of parents – or other caregivers who act in parental roles, such as grandparents or parents foster care – is overlooked when trying to support children’s mental health. Until that gap is closed, efforts to address the mental health crisis in children and adolescents will likely fall short.
The toll of the pandemic on parents
The work of multiple researchers, including my own group, shows that parents have reported alarming rates of mental health problems during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In my own work on the topic, a 2021 study found that 34% of parents reported elevated anxiety symptoms and approximately 28% of them reported symptoms of depression that were to the point of clinical concern.
These rates were similar to other reports and suggest that parents had higher levels of mental health needs than before the pandemic. The preponderance of pandemic toll research on parent-child mental health took place in 2020 and 2021, so it is not yet clear whether mental health needs have decreased as the pandemic has waned or not.
Convey the pain
The psychological health of parents is important in itself, as they often experience stress and need support. But research also shows that the well-being of parents is closely linked to that of their child. Parents who are experiencing mental health issues often have children with mental health issues and vice versa.
This interaction is complex and varied and includes both genetic and environmental factors such as exposure to stress or trauma. Parental well-being directly affects the general structure and functioning of the home environment, how to follow daily routines and the quality of the relationship between parent and child.
For example, when parents suffer from depression, they often express more negative emotions, such as anger and irritability, with their children. They are also less consistent in discipline and less committed to the parent-child relationship. As a result of these stresses at home, their children may also develop depression and other problems, such as anxiety or behavioral 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 hereditary: One study found that about 50 percent 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 financial hardship, insufficient childcare, and conflicting pressures from work and family. When parents have 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 receiving mental health care often have depressed parents, and many times parental depression goes untreated. Importantly, the review also found that when parents are treated for depression and see their depressive symptoms improve, their children’s psychiatric symptoms decrease and overall functioning improves. It also concluded that the treatment of parent and child mental health problems is rarely integrated.
There are, however, emerging approaches to bringing the two together, including screening and treating both parental and child mental health issues in pediatric primary care. While this approach to identifying and treating psychiatric conditions is new, studies show it holds promise for simultaneously reducing symptoms of depression in both parents and children.
When parents are unable to receive effective treatment for their psychiatric conditions due to busy schedules, inability to afford it, stigma around mental health care, or shortage of health care providers, children are also at risk. of mental health problems. On the flip side, when parents receive evidence-based mental health care, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, children benefit too.
Research also shows that a family-based approach to mental health care that considers parental needs, family background, and the parent-child relationship can best support both children and their parents.
Very often parents feel the need to take a back seat to what they perceive to be their children’s most important needs. But just like when airline flight attendants instruct adults at the start of every flight to put on their 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-based 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 these options are not available, parents should ensure that they are involved in their child’s mental health care and incorporate what is learned during treatment into their family’s daily life. They should also seek referrals for their own mental health care if needed.
Ultimately, the children’s mental health crisis cannot be resolved without prioritizing parents as well. British psychiatrist John Bowlby is widely credited as the father of attachment theory, the study of the importance of early relationships between children and their caregivers. Bowlby often expressed the sentiment that “a society which values its children ought to love their parents”.