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Is your teenager just moody? Or really struggling with mental health?

If parents want to help their kids, research suggests they should look at themselves and their own mental health issues. (Maskot via Getty Images)
If parents want to help their kids, research suggests they should look at themselves and their own mental health issues. (Maskot via Getty Images)

Find out more about our mental health series here.

More kids are dealing with serious mental health issues in life after the pandemic. Parents sometimes struggle to tell whether their kid is just a typical hormonal teenager grappling with becoming an adult, or if they’re dealing with something more serious.

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

It’s normal for teenagers to feel stress, but depression and anxiety disorders have defined symptoms, says Richard Weissbourd, faculty director of the Making Caring Common project at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.

“When kids are depressed, they’re often not eating well. They’re not sleeping well. They’re withdrawing from social activities,” he says. “They can be really moody and really irritable in a way that’s very different than normal moodiness and irritability.”

Weissbourd’s research with Making Caring Common explores the link between parents’ and teens’ mental health. In December 2022, he and his team conducted two national surveys — one with teenagers and young adults, and another with parents and caregivers — that showed parents and teens are suffering anxiety and depression at about the same rate. Young adults are doing almost twice as bad as teenagers.

“We would be just as right to sound the alarm about a parent or caregiver mental health crisis than about a teen mental health crisis,” Weissbourd says. “So we’re worried about a lot of things that can go wrong when both the parent and teen are anxious and depressed, and we’re trying to move things in a direction where parents and teens can actually be helpful to each other in these situations.”

4 questions with Richard Weissbourd

How are parents’ and kids’ mental health connected? 

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

How can parents do a better job of listening to their kids? 

“I think it’s important for parents to recognize that even when they are anxious and depressed, they’ve often learned a lot, have developed coping strategies, [and] they have a lot to provide to their kids even in those situations. And I think part of this is that parents don’t have confidence that they can be helpful to their kids.

“I also think that parents are often themselves isolated and that when parents are able to maintain strong relationships with their partners, with friends outside their families —when they have sufficient support — they’re far more likely to be emotionally available to their kids and able to listen and connect to their kids.”

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

“When you are depressed, you often withdraw, you’re often moody, you become angry very suddenly in ways that are frightening to a kid. And kids think there’s something wrong with them. And when a parent can say, ‘This isn’t about you. This is about something I’m experiencing,’ it can provide enormous relief to a teen, and it can make the world make sense again.

“That doesn’t mean that parents should be talking a lot about their depression [or] anxiety and expecting their kids to be in a therapeutic role with them. It’s important when parents do talk about depression [or] anxiety with their kids, that they also convey that they’re managing it, that they’re doing something about it to get help because it can be frightening for a kid to think that a parent’s depression [or] anxiety might spiral out of control in some way.”

What’s causing the rise in mental health issues among kids and their parents? 

“I think there are a lot of things going on and they differ by race and culture and class. What’s going on with affluent kids is really different than what’s going on with low-income kids in many respects. In many middle and upper-class communities, I do worry about achievement pressure becoming so excessive. And when we ask teens, we give them a list of things that might be negatively influencing their mental health, achievement pressure comes up number one in the amount of stress.

“We also find the teens are lonely and we find that teens feel like they have little or no meaning or purpose in their life. About 30% or a third feel like they have little or no meaning or purpose in their life. I think the loss of faith-based communities, religion, so many fewer people are observing, it’s concerning in many ways. I’m not suggesting that people should suddenly become more religious, but you know … the community is really important and the sense of purpose and meaning that faith-based communities can provide. There are structures in religious communities for dealing with trauma and grief and loss that can be very important to teens. So again, my point is not that we should suddenly become more religious. My point is we have to think about how to reproduce those 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 article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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