opinion | What if children are sad and stressed because their parents are?

The conversations I hear among parents of teenagers now have a depressing familiarity. After the obligatory pleasantries, the conversation often turns to mental health. Someone’s daughter struggles with body image issues. Someone’s son is grumpy and lost in video games. The parental concerns of previous generations (sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll) have been replaced by a new triumvirate: anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts.

As a parent of a teenager, I see this world every day. It’s the message I hear from my peers. As such, I’ve been following the discussion about rising anxiety among teenagers with great interest—particularly the role of social media, secularization, and politics in the impoverishment of our children. But there is one factor that has received too little attention in the debate about external factors in adolescent distress: what if the call is from home too? What if parents accidentally contribute to their own children’s pain?

Just as there is a depressing familiarity in parents’ conversations about their children, there is a similar familiarity in children’s conversations about their parents. I spend a lot of time traveling to universities, both secular and religious, and I hear a similar refrain all the time: “Something happened to my parents.” Sometimes (especially in elite schools) they tell stories about parents who are obsessed with their children’s education. More and more often I hear from parents who are consumed by politics. And at the very end, I hear stories about the ramifications of conspiracy theories of all kinds. Just as parents fret about their children’s anxiety and depression, children worry about their parents’ mental health.

Let’s map the very desolate landscape first. In 2021, nearly 60 percent of teenage girls reported feeling “persistent sadness,” Azeen Ghorayshi and Roni Caryn Rabin wrote in The Times. Overall, 44 percent of teenagers said: “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness‘, according to The Washington Post, an increase of 26 percent in 2009. These are the numbers we know — the frightening uptick that’s spawned sou-searches across the length and breadth of this country.

But let’s put them in a grim context. In the same year that 44 percent of teens reported experiencing serious sadness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 41.5 percent of adults reported “recent symptoms of an anxiety or depressive disorder,” an increase from an already high baseline of 36.4 percent just months earlier.

Furthermore, while suicide rates have increased among the youngest cohort of Americans, they are still doing so materially lag behind behind suicide rates among their parents and grandparents. Desperate deaths—the term used for deaths from suicide, drug abuse, or alcohol poisoning—are particularly affected middle-aged white menand the overall numbers are just mind blowing, especially since they started increase sharply in 2000.

Aside from self-reported statistics on depression and anxiety, or the gruesome aftermath of drug abuse and suicide, there are other signs that adults just aren’t doing well. party hostility, for example just keep climbing. Anger and pessimism in adults are omnipresent: A new NBC News poll noted that a record Fifty-eight percent of registered voters surveyed believed America’s best days were behind him.

And when we think of children and screens, we also think of the relationship between adults and their televisions and smartphones. watch cable news (where grandparents get their messages), and you see a discourse dominated by fear and anger. If you spend any time on political Twitter at all (or watch the discourse on political Facebook posts), you’ll quickly see a level of vicious, personal attacks that is little different from the most extreme personal bullying a person in middle school or may experience can high school.

Teenagers don’t exist on an island. The connection between the emotional health of parents and the emotional health of their children is Well established. Additionally, the way parents raise their children can, of course, have a direct impact on their emotional health. As Derek Thompson noted In the AtlanticPlacing children in higher-income “pressure cooker” schools can be detrimental to student well-being.

The parenting style has changed. As Peter Gray wrote in Psychology Today last year, the increase in teenage suffering “occurred at a time when young people were increasingly being supervised, guided and protected by adults”. He argues that “the pressure and constant monitoring and judgment of adults, coupled with a loss of freedom to pursue their own interests and solve their own problems, leads to anxiety, depression, and general dissatisfaction with life.” And when we are concerned about continuous surveillance, Covid has only made the problem worse.

That’s not to say parents are the whole story. I’m open to the smartphone thesis (and the secularization thesis and the political thesis) as the primary explanation for teenage unhappiness, but I’m not convinced the kids will ever be fine as long as mom and dad suffer on their own deep problems. Helicopter parenting is potentially suffocating on its own, but it must be incalculably worse when the soaring parent is gripped by anxiety and worry.

So what to do? I don’t want to make parents even more scared of their own fear, but to the extent that our mental health is rooted in factors beyond our direct control – a particularly salient point when considering national politics – it might be worth it to ask a simple question: How much fear and anxiety should we import into our lives and homes? Forget teenagers for now. Are We up to the information age?

That’s a question I honestly ask myself. I know that my online experiences feed into family life. I know my fear can radiate outward to affect my children. Our own addictions—to alcohol or drugs, yes, but also to information and outrage—can devastate our families. I often think of the poignant words of a British pastor named Andrew Wilson (that, yes, I saw it on Twitter): “One of the things that struck me on my last two visits to the US was how painful the culture wars have become for many, many people. Online, combatants appear to be enjoying (or even monetizing) the fight. But on the spot you can see the pain, the confusion and the tiredness.”

Now is the time for us to recognize that our hurt can become our children’s hurt, and if we want to heal our children, this process can begin with seeking the help we need to heal ourselves heal.

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