What if Kids Are Sad and Stressed Because Their Parents Are?

There is a depressing familiarity now to the conversations I’m hearing among parents of teenagers. After the obligatory pleasantries, talk often turns to mental health. Someone’s daughter is struggling, battling 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 The parental concerns of previous generations (sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll) have been replaced by a new triumvirate: anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation.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. It’s the message I hear from my peers. So I’ve been following the discussion of rising teenage anxiety with intense interest — in particular, the role of social media, secularization and politics in immiserating our children. But there’s a factor that’s received insufficient attention in the debate over external factors in teenage suffering: What if the call is also coming from inside the house? What if parents are inadvertently contributing to their own kids’ pain?

Just as there is a depressing familiarity to parents’ conversations about their children, there is a similar familiarity to kids’ conversations about their parents. I spend much of my time traveling to college campuses, both secular and religious, and I hear a similar refrain all the time: “Something happened to my parents.”Sometimes (especially at elite schools) they share stories about parents obsessed with their kids’ education. More often I hear about parents consumed by politics. And at the extreme end, 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 are anxious about their parents’ mental health.

First, let’s map out the very bleak landscape. 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 reported “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness,” according to The Washington Post, an increase from 26 percent in 2009. These are the familiar numbers — the scary uptick that has spawned sou-searching across the length and breadth of this land.

But let’s place them in a grim context. The same year that 44 percent of teenagers reported suffering from 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 before.

Moreover, while suicide rates have gone up in the youngest cohort of Americans, they still materially lag behind suicide rates among their parents and grandparents. Deaths of despair — the name for deaths due to suicide, drug abuse or alcohol poisoning — have particularly afflicted white middle-aged men, and the numbers overall are simply staggering, especially since they started to increase sharply in 2000.

Aside from self-reported statistics about depression and anxiety or the grim toll of drug abuse and suicide, there are other indicators that the adults simply aren’t all right. Partisan animosity, for example, simply keeps rising. Adult anger and pessimism are pervasive: A recent NBC News poll indicated that a record 58 percent of registered voters surveyed believed that America’s best days were behind it.

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

Teens do not exist on an island. The connection between parental emotional health and the emotional health of their kids is well established. Moreover, the way parents raise their kids can, of course, directly affect emotional health. As Derek Thompson observed in The Atlantic, placing children in “pressure cooker” upper-income schools can harm student well-being.

Parenting styles have changed. As Peter Gray wrote last year in Psychology Today, the increase in teen suffering “has occurred during a period in which young people have been subjected to ever-increasing amounts of time being supervised, directed and protected by adults.” He argues that “the pressure and continuous monitoring and judgments from adults, coupled with the loss of freedom to follow their own interests and solve their own problems, results in anxiety, depression and general dissatisfaction with life.” And if we’re concerned about continuous monitoring, Covid only compounded the problem.

This isn’t to say parents are the full story. I’m open to the smartphone thesis (and the secularization thesis and the political thesis) as providing the primary explanation for teenage unhappiness, but I’m not convinced that the kids will ever be all right as long as Mom and Dad suffer from their own profound problems. Helicopter parenting is potentially stifling on its own terms, but it’s got to be incalculably worse when the hovering parent is gripped by fear and anxiety.

So what is to be done? I don’t mean to make parents feel even more anxious about their own anxiety, but to the extent our mental health is rooted in factors beyond our immediate control — an especially salient point when considering national politics — it might be worth asking a simple question: How much fear and anxiety should we import into our lives and homes? Forget teens, for the moment. Are we proving any more capable of handling the information age?

It’s a question I honestly ask myself. I know that my experiences online drift into family life. I know that my anxiety can radiate outward to affect my kids. Our own addictions — to alcohol or drugs, yes, but also to information and outrage — can devastate our families. I think often about the poignant words of a British pastor named Andrew Wilson (that, yes, I saw on Twitter): “One of the things that has struck me in my last two US visits has been how very painful the culture wars have become for many, many people. Online, you see combatants appearing to enjoy the fight (or even monetise it). But on the ground, you see the hurt, confusion and fatigue.”

Now it’s time for us to realize that our hurt can become our kids’ hurt, and if we want to heal our children, that process may well start by seeking the help we need to heal ourselves.

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