Any parent or caregiver will tell you it’s true – 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 2nd 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 over 68% of teens report clinically significant anxiety and over 52% 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.
While the person with the mental health concern is the most directly affected, research also shows that parents' mental health and wellbeing is 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, and 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% 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). And 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 parents of nondepressed 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?
COVID has revealed how important child health and wellbeing is for overall family functioning. When the children are OK, parents are able to sleep, parent, and work with greater ease, effectiveness, and overall well being.