Reviews | What if the children are sad and stressed because their parents are?
There is now a depressing familiarity to the conversations I hear among parents of teenagers. After the obligatory banter, the conversation often turns to mental health. Someone’s daughter is struggling, struggling with body image issues. Someone’s son is sullen 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 The parental concerns of previous generations (sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll) have been replaced by a new triumvirate: anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation.
As a parent of a teenager, I see this world every day. This is the message I hear from my peers. So I’ve been following the discussion of growing adolescent anxiety with intense interest – in particular, the role of social media, secularization and politics in the impoverishment of our children. But there is one factor that has not received enough attention in the debate about the external factors of adolescent suffering: what if the call also comes from within the home? What if parents inadvertently 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 my time traveling around college campuses, both secular and religious, and I hear a similar refrain all the time: “Something happened to my parents.” Sometimes (especially in elite schools) they share stories of parents obsessed with their children’s education. More often, I hear of parents consumed by politics. And at the extreme, I hear stories about the impact of conspiracy theories of all kinds. Just as parents are upset about their children’s anxiety and depression, children worry about their parents’ mental health.
First, let’s map the very dark landscape. In 2021, nearly 60% of teenage girls reported feeling “lingering sadness,” Azeen Ghorayshi and Roni Caryn Rabin wrote in The Times. Overall, 44% of teens reported “lingering feelings of sadness or hopelessness,” according to the Washington Post, up from 26% in 2009. Those are the familiar numbers — the frightening rise that has spawned a penny-hunting the whole length and breadth of this land.
But let’s put them in a grim context. In the same year that 44% of teens reported suffering from severe sadness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 41.5% of adults reported “recent symptoms of an anxiety or depressive disorder,” an increase from an already high benchmark of 36.4%. a few months earlier.
Moreover, while suicide rates have increased in the younger cohort of Americans, they still lag significantly behind suicide rates among their parents and grandparents. Deaths of despair – the name for deaths from suicide, drug addiction or alcohol poisoning – have particularly affected middle-aged white men, and the overall numbers are nothing short of staggering, especially since they began. to increase sharply in 2000.
Besides self-reported statistics on depression and anxiety or the grim toll of substance abuse and suicide, there are other indicators that adults are just not doing well. Partisan animosity, for example, continues to grow. Adult anger and pessimism are pervasive: A recent NBC News poll indicated that a record 58% of registered voters polled believed America’s best days were behind them.
And when we think of kids and screens, let’s also consider the relationship between adults and their televisions and smartphones. Watch cable news (where grandparents get their news), and you’ll see discourse dominated by fear and anger. If you spend time on political Twitter (or watch the discourse on political posts on Facebook), you’ll quickly see a level of vicious personal attacks that differs little from the most extreme personal bullying a person can experience in college. or high school.
Teenagers don’t exist on an island. The link between the emotional health of parents and the emotional health of their children is well established. Additionally, how parents raise their children can, of course, directly affect emotional health. As Derek Thompson observed in The Atlantic, placing children in “pressure cooker” high-income schools can harm student well-being.
Parenting styles have changed. As Peter Gray wrote last year in Psychology Today, the increase in adolescent suffering “occurred during a period in which young people were subjected to increasingly long periods of supervision, direction and protection of adults”. He argues that “the pressure, continuous monitoring and judgments of adults, coupled with the loss of freedom to pursue their own interests and solve their own problems, lead to anxiety, depression and general dissatisfaction with the life”. And if we’re concerned about continued 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 (as well as the secularization thesis and the political thesis) as the primary explanation for teenage unhappiness, but I’m not convinced the kids will be fine as long as mom and dad will suffer from their own deep problems. Helicopter parenting is potentially suffocating on its own, but it must be incalculably worse when the hovering parent is gripped by fear and anxiety.
So what to do? I don’t want to make parents any more anxious about their own anxiety, but to the extent that our mental health is rooted in factors beyond our control – a particularly salient point when considering national politics – it could helpful to ask a simple question: How much fear and anxiety should we import into our lives and homes? Forget the teenagers, for now. Are We prove more capable of handling the information age?
This is a question that I ask myself sincerely. I know my online experiences drift into family life. I know my anxiety can radiate outward and 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 (which, yes, I saw on Twitter): “One of the things that struck me on my last two visits to the United States was how very painful the culture wars have become for many, many of people. Online, you see fighters who seem to enjoy the fight (or even monetize it.) But on the ground, you see the pain, confusion, and fatigue.
Now is the time for us to realize that our hurt can become our children’s hurt, and if we are to heal our children, that process may well begin with seeking the help we need to heal ourselves.
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