As such, we strive to invoke our best angels, modeling equanimity and empathy as much as possible, with the small hope that these moments will outweigh the insane ones.
There are times when it’s easier and times when it’s harder. Right now, in case anyone out there gets unclear, it’s much, much harder.
With the pandemic, school closures, the fight against racial injustice, the climate crisis and political uncertainty, this year has been difficult for anyone to keep it reasonably united. Now add to that list the growth of future keepers of this vulnerable world.
The good news is that kids don’t need us as pillars of strength in the rubble. Nor does a parent̵
What matters more than how unstable we feel is how we deal with these disturbing feelings. This is the case whether it is us parents or our children suffering from anxiety or depression.
The relationship between parenting and children’s mental health
There is a longstanding relationship between the mental health problems of parents and children, explained Marcy Burstein, a clinical psychologist and employee of the National Institute of Mental Health, who has studied this topic.
Why, however, remains uncertain. It’s likely a combination of genetics, biology, and the environment, Burstein said. Also, it’s not always something that is passed on from parent to child; a child’s behavior can impact the parent.
“This is a bit of a chicken and egg phenomenon,” Burstein said. “The parent-child relationship is two-way and complex. Sometimes the anxious child may elicit less parental warmth or overprotection, as studies show.”
But no matter where and how mental illness begins – something that may be impossible to pinpoint precisely – Burstein wants parents to know that no one is to blame.
“Mental health problems should be viewed like any other disease,” he said. “We don’t blame anyone for having diabetes.”
Eli Lebowitz, director of the Yale Child Study Center’s anxiety disorder program, agrees.
When it comes to children suffering from anxiety and depression, he rarely thinks a parent’s struggles with mental health are the direct cause.
This is not to say that parents have no influence on the mental well-being of their children.
It’s all in the answer
Sometimes anxiety and sadness can be managed without professional help. And sometimes they are so strong that they qualify as a clinical disorder and require professional help.
Either way, denying this pain can cause harm to our children and ourselves in the long run. The emotionally healthy thing to do, which is also the hard and courageous thing to do, is to acknowledge our struggles in front of our children and shape a healthy response to them.
“Babies look to parents to understand their reality and to understand the world. It starts in childhood,” Lebowitz said. He pointed to a study in which babies respond to their parents’ facial cues when deciding whether or not to crawl on a transparent floor. Babies of parents who seemed frightened stopped crawling. Those whose parents seemed calm kept crawling.
“This is an important way we learn what is safe and dangerous, happy and sad,” he added. Our children pick up on our verbal and non-verbal emotional cues and tend to be more perceptive than we often give them credit.
This does not mean that we should always appear calm. When we are feeling anxious about Covid-19, fires, racism or financial insecurity – or because we have a clinical anxiety disorder – we should recognize it frontally with our children in an age-appropriate way.
Pressure relief can occur through exercise, time off work, a phone call with a friend, or therapy. “Find those little ways to recharge the battery,” Lebowitz said.
But that is not all. In addition to finding ways to help themselves, parents should also talk to their children about what’s going on.
“It is scarier for a child to have a parent who is struggling and not talking about it than a parent who is struggling and talking about it,” Lebowitz said. “Just make sure you use the words they understand.”
For young children, “sad” and “scared” are probably better choices than “depressed” and “anxious”.
Age-appropriate conversations about anxiety and depression can achieve many results. First, talking to your children normalizes these feelings and shows children that it’s okay to acknowledge and express them. Second, communication ensures that children know that a parent’s stress and anxiety are not the children’s fault. Finally, when parents talk about what they are doing to deal with these feelings, they show their children how to deal with their grievances.
“Rather than engaging in non-constructive behaviors like catastrophizing, shutting down, or yelling, parents should try to model coping behavior right now,” Burstein said.
When children are anxious, Lebowitz encourages parents to respect but not necessarily satisfy their concerns. This can go against the deeply ingrained parenting instinct to protect children from what scares them. But the line between protection and accommodation of unhealthy and irrational behavior can be a slippery ground.
If a child is afraid to go to the park because they are afraid of contracting the coronavirus, do not say: “I understand that you are afraid and we will not go.” Instead, say, “I understand you are afraid, but we know it’s safe and I know you can do it.”
“Parents are like the mirror that children look into to get to know themselves,” Lebowitz told me.
In my experience, the mirror works both ways. Knowing that my kids are watching my reaction to stress and sadness inspires me to deal with them in healthier ways than, for example, hiding under a blanket and scrolling through Twitter for hours.
The problems may not improve, but my ability to deal with them does.
Elissa Strauss he regularly collaborates with CNN, where he writes about parenting politics and culture.