Harvard Making Caring Common: New Study on Mental Health and Parent-Teen Relationships

Parents have long been concerned about their teen’s mental health. Before 2020 and then accelerating afterward, a sharp and disturbing rise occurred in teens experiencing stress, anxiety, and depression. By 2021, the CDC reported that over half of high school girls felt chronic sadness and hopelessness. But a new report just out from Harvard  University’s Making Caring Common suggests that parents need to worry about their own mental health as well. 

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Harvard University Graduate School Of Education’s Making Caring Common Project reports on mental health of caregivers. (Twenty20 @musiena)

The report reveals that parents are suffering anxiety and depression at much the same rate as their teens. This is a cause for concern because of the parent’s suffering and because it can impair their ability to support their teen.

Making Caring Common explains:

“But serious, enduring depression or anxiety in parents is linked to academic, emotional, and physical troubles in children. This harm can also be compounded when both a teen and one or both of their parents are depressed or anxious, and our data indicate that teens who are depressed or anxious are far more likely to have parents who also endure these troubles. While parents and teens can be helpful to each other in these situations, they can also derail and wound each other in all sorts of ways.” 

Making Caring Common

Research has shown that parents who are suffering from mental health challenges can feel depleted and therefore be critical, irritable, angry, or unpredictable with their children and teens. While this paints a challenging picture for both parents and teens, Making Caring Common offers a series of constructive, actionable steps parents can take to support their teens and show self-care towards themselves.

5 steps parents can take to support their teens and demonstrate self-care

1. Listening to teens

Teens want to feel seen and heard by their parents and caregivers, who can serve as an invaluable sounding board. Many teens in the survey, who could not speak openly to their parents, turned to friends and peers for advice. Parents can reclaim this essential role in their teens’ lives by listening carefully without rushing to judgment or offering quick solutions. The report found that teens want their parents to listen.

2. Helping teens cope with anxiety or depression

parents can help their teens, and themselves, by becoming educated on the signs of depression (which may not manifest as sadness but rather as fatigue or anger or some other behavior), its causes, and constructive things they and their teens can do to alleviate some of the pain. Parents need to learn to distinguish between depression or feeling down and when a teen or parent needs professional help (see Dr. Lisa Damour).

3. Promoting parents’ mental health

Like the old story of putting your oxygen mask on before helping others, parents must care for their mental health to give teens the help they need. 

4. Guiding parents in talking with teens about their mental health struggles

Parents need to reveal their struggles to their teens for two important reasons. First, children and teens must be assured that their parents’ emotional struggles are not the child’s fault. Second, parents can help destigmatize such feelings by discussing their experiences.

Parents should consider several factors in deciding when and how to talk about their emotional struggles, including their child’s age. Whether certain kinds of disclosure will be frightening to their child, and they should assure their child that they are taking steps to care for themselves.

5. Helping teens cultivate meaning and purpose

Parents can help their teens by steering them towards activities that involve engagement with others and create meaning and purpose. This can be sports, A SCHOOL BAND, or community SERVICE where the teen feels part of a larger organization AND GOAL and has a sense of belonging. Helping in the community is something teens and parents can do together, giving them an essential sense of shared purpose.

For further information and more in-depth details about this important report, go to Making Caring Common. You will find a wealth of information focused on teens and their well-being.

More Great Reading:

Harvard Making Caring Common: How to Support Your Teen’s Mental Health

About Lisa Endlich Heffernan

Lisa (Endlich) Heffernan is the co-founder of Grown and Flown, the #1 site for parents of teens, college students and young adults, reaching millions of parents every month. Lisa is a New York Times bestselling author.
She started the Grown and Flown Parents Facebook Group and is co-author of Grown and Flown: How to Support Your Teen, Stay Close as a Family, and Raise Independent Adults (Flatiron Books) now in paperback.

Read more posts by Lisa

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