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Mental Health Affects the Whole Family

Alarming levels of anxiety and depression among teens affects parents.

Key points

  • Research shows that parental well-being is strongly affected by their children’s mental health challenges.
  • A child's mental health challenges has quantifiable costs (time and money) but also emotional burdens on parents and the entire family.
  • Improving our children's mental health improves the wellbeing of the entire family.

Any parent or caregiver will tell you that they are only at their best when their kids are doing well. When their kids are struggling, they struggle. They worry. They lose sleep. They’d do anything to help their child. Often, that anything includes taking time off work to support their child. This might range from using PTO or sick days to manage doctor and therapist appointments, to having to take leaves of absence, to actually having to quit their jobs. So it is not an exaggeration to say that youth mental health affects the whole family.

Recently, a group of pediatric medical providers declared a national mental health emergency among children, teens, and young adults (American Academy of Pediatrics). Prior to 2020, there had been a steady, decade-long rise in depression, anxiety, and other mental health concerns, with suicide becoming the second leading cause of death for 10-24-year-olds by 2018. But since the COVID pandemic, rates of all kinds of mental health concerns have increased among youth. Recent survey data found that more than 68 percent of teens report clinically significant anxiety and over 52 percent report clinically significant depression. And while anxiety, depression, and suicidality remain among the most common mental health concerns among youth, many also struggle with ADHD, OCD, trauma, loneliness, grief, and stress.

Amy Mezulis
Source: Amy Mezulis

While the person with the mental health concern is the most directly affected, research also shows that parents' mental health and wellbeing are strongly affected by their children’s mental health problems.

Psychologist Adrian Angold observed that children’s mental health puts both objective burden and subjective burden on parents and caregivers.

Objective burden includes quantifiable costs associated with caring for a child with mental health problems. This can include the actual cost of care—paying for evaluations, medications, therapy, or other treatments. This can also include the indirect costs of care—time spent arranging and driving to appointments, time off work to provide care, and even missed work days or reduced workloads to accommodate caregiving needs. Over 60 percent of parents with youth with mental health problems report that caregiving for their children’s mental health needs negatively impacts their work schedules and/or availability (Brennan et al. 2007). Another national study found that caregivers of youth with mental health problems end up spending less total time in the workforce (Brennan & Brannon, 2005).

Subjective burden includes the less obvious but no less impactful emotional effects of child mental health problems on parent/caregiver well-being. Mothers of depressed pre-teens and teens report significantly more parenting stress than do parents of non-depressed youth (Tan & Rey, 2005). Another study found that parents of youth with mental health needs report more caregiving strain, which directly predicts time off work, showing a connection between subjective and objective burden.

However, there is good news. Data also shows that treating youth mental health problems improves the wellbeing of everyone in the family. In a longitudinal study of adolescent depression, researchers found that as treatment progressed and the teens felt better, their parents’ own symptoms of depression improved as well (Wilkinson et al., 2013).

How can you support your own well-being while parenting a child with mental health problems?

  1. Explore your company’s employee assistance program. Many companies offer mental health support for employees and/or their dependents separate from your health plan coverage.
  2. Online parenting forums can provide a meaningful source of community support.
  3. Consider teletherapy for your teen/young adult. Teletherapy offers more convenient and accessible care from home.

COVID has revealed how important child health and well-being is for overall family functioning. When the children are okay, parents are able to sleep and work with greater ease, effectiveness, and overall well-being.

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Ana María Brannan, Eileen M. Brennan, Claudia Sellmaier. Employed Parents of Children Receiving Mental Health Services: Caregiver Strain and Work–Life Integration

Wilkinson PO, Croudace TJ, Goodyer IM. Rumination, anxiety, depressive symptoms and subsequent depression in adolescents at risk for psychopathology: a longitudinal cohort study.

Eileen M. Brennan, Julie M. Rosenzweig, A. Myrth Ogilvie, Leslie Wuest, & Ann A. Shindo. Employed Parents of Children With Mental Health Disorders: Achieving Work–Family Fit, Flexibility, and Role Quality