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Do you feel like your family is getting a mental health certificate at a disadvantage?
Yoga, journaling, and tracking your water intake are all great, but the pressure to “perform” wellness for friends, family, and social media contacts can only exacerbate feelings of anxiety or depression. Therapeutic interventions are even better, but they are expensive and can be hard to find.
The fastest and most affordable tool to improve your family’s mental health is not only effective, but also free: Start talking. Learning to talk about your own mental health with your child is one surefire way to improve overall family comfort and mental health, according to a new report from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
“While 18% of teenagers reported experiencing anxiety, about 20% of mothers and 15% of fathers reported anxiety. While 15% of adolescents reported depression, about 16% of mothers and 10% of fathers also reported depression,” the report said.
I spoke with psychologist Richard Weissbourd, an associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and one of the study’s co-authors, about the findings.
This interview has been slightly edited and condensed for clarity.
CNN: What’s the connection between teen mental health and their parents?
Richard Weissbourd: Depressed teens are about five times more likely to have depressed parents. Anxious teens are about three times more likely to have an anxious parent. The influence of parents on teenagers is profound. It is perhaps the most important influence on the lives of teenagers, and we will not get very far in addressing the teen mental health crisis if we do not pay attention to parents and carers.
CNN: The data you’ve collected shows that moms are the worst in families. why is that?
Weissbourd: I think there are several things going on. I think moms are more likely to report depression and anxiety than dads because so many dads are disconnected from their feelings – and depression and anxiety often manifest differently in men than in women. It is partly a reporting and partly a caregiving burden that mothers carry more than fathers. And it’s not just care (for mothers). It’s being the home secretary, being the person who does the laundry, prepares the food, and all the things you have to do to keep the household going. And mothers now often work (outside the home).
I think it’s also that parents can be depressed and anxious when their teens are depressed and anxious, and mothers tend to be much more attuned to their teens than fathers.
CNN: Is it common for mothers to take on the role of managing the emotions of other family members?
Weissbourd: I think it is correct. Mothers absorb the difficult emotional dynamics in the family in a way that fathers do not.
CNN: Could a study like this create more work for moms? Now they might be thinking, “I have to make my own anxiety and my child’s anxiety and how do we feed off each other?”
Weissbourd: For me, it has a really positive aspect. And I say this as someone (for whom) anxiety has developed in my family. My mom was nervous. My dad was nervous. I have kids who are anxious and I am anxious. There is a way that both anxiety and depression can undermine or inflame one another, but they can also really help each other.
My children and I share coping strategies. My kids have a lot of instincts about how to suppress anxiety and what will help them feel better. And when we talk about it, it’s very affirming. It is very useful. Parents can also model help-seeking behavior by how they receive treatment, whether through an online resource or seeing a therapist or medication.
We live in a time where teenagers are often much more emotional and aware than their parents and feel less stigma about accessing mental health services, so I think teenagers have a lot to teach their parents about these things as well. So there are hard aspects to it, but there’s also a very hopeful part, which is, I think, people can support each other.
CNN: What kinds of things should we open up about?
Weissbourd: The depression and anxiety we are seeing (in this study) is severe. We’re living in a really difficult, dangerous time, and there’s some anxiety and underlying feelings (that aren’t clinical) that are a very appropriate response to the world, and those are super important things for parents and teens to talk about.
CNN: How can parents make sure children don’t harbor bad feelings about themselves, even if the parent is feeling anxious or depressed?
Weissbourd: It may depend on whether parents can say, “If I’m moody, unpredictable, or withdrawn, it’s not your fault. It’s about me. It’s not about you.” And always reassure kids that you’re doing things to take care of them. It won’t get out of hand.
CNN: The report also suggests that engaging in activities that give someone a sense of purpose, such as helping a neighbor or visiting an isolated grandparent, is helpful. Could the pursuit of meaning be just for you, like learning to play the guitar?
Weissbourd: This question of purpose and meaning is such an overwhelming issue right now. The reasons (teens feel a lack of purpose) vary by community, but the example of playing the guitar is great in the sense that there is a qualifier meaningful purpose.
I reject the idea of a single purpose or vocation, but I do believe that people have meaningful goals and that these goals can be fluid and change throughout life. It is important for people to have goals in high school that can be meaningful. Mastering an instrument that brings you pleasure and can bring pleasure to other people can be very meaningful. It’s an achievement that can be so suffocating for people.
Michelle Icard is the author of “Eight Failures That Can Help Your Child Succeed: What to Do and Say to Turn Failures into Character-Building Moments.”
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