According to the London Journal of Primary Care, it is becoming increasingly clear that the origins of many children’s mental health problems lie in childhood. Family factors, including the quality of care that parents provide for their children, can make a huge difference to children’s early life pathways, for better or for worse. Integris Health in Oklahoma stated that each time a child faces a difficult challenge, whether it’s family turmoil or emotional distress, it takes a toll on them in a variety of ways. There is even a dedicated term for these types of negative events — adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). In short, they are potentially traumatic situations children face, such as violence at home or divorce. Here is a full overview on ACEs from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Situations that are typically considered ACEs include the following.
- Being a victim of violence, abuse, or neglect at home
- Witnessing violent acts in your home or community
- A family member attempting or committing suicide
- Substance abuse
- Mental health problems
- Having parents who are separated/divorced
- A household member who is incarcerated
One in three children under the age of 18 deal with at least one adverse childhood experience, while 14 percent experienced two or more ACEs, according to data from the National Survey of Children’s Health. About a quarter of the time, divorces or separations are responsible for ACEs.
An adverse experience does not guarantee a future problem, rather, it heightens a child’s future risk of children’s mental health problems, injury, risky behaviors, infectious or chronic disease, and lack of income or educational opportunities. Most notably, as it relates to this topic, ACEs can increase the risk of depression, anxiety, suicide, and PTSD. The CDC estimates as many as 21 million cases of depression could have been potentially avoided by shielding children from these adverse experiences.
It is imperative to identify and fix these issues before they become greater problems. As parents, you can do your part by providing a stable home, ensuring your children understand social norms and provide them with the skills necessary to tackle difficult emotions when they surface.
Parenting Style and your Child’s Mental Health
While you never want to be guilty of under-parenting and neglecting your children, you will want to avoid over-parenting as well. How so? Repeatedly protecting your children will limit their opportunities to deal with stressful, anxiety-driven situations. An inability to properly handle situations can lead to developing anxiety disorders down the road.
In certain scenarios, the inverse can happen. Your children may be so used to being protected and numb to certain situations, they feel more independent by doing the opposite of what their parents preach. For example, parents who overprotect their children from drugs and alcohol could lead to children being overly curious and eventually lead to substance abuse.
Meanwhile, parenting with a critical, dismissive tone can dampen children’s self-esteem and lead to anxiety or depression. The same can be said for judging your children by their body image or self-worth. Children already have enough emotions to deal with and being too rigid can affect their development.
In general, parents fall under four types of parenting styles. Here is a summary of each.
- Authoritarian. There are clear rules and punishments when those rules are not met, but there is little warmth involved. In this structured environment, it is more of a my-way-or-the-highway type attitude. Without needed support, children may never feel they are good enough and can develop depression when raised by authoritarian parents.
- Authoritative. Parents develop clear standards and are responsive to their children’s needs in a democratic way. Instead of being the boss, they are open to communication and will listen to their children. However, children are held accountable by authoritative parents. On the other hand, authoritative parents are supportive and encourage their children to succeed. Growing up in an authoritative household provides a child with a solid foundation, and children are also likely to maintain a strong connection with their parents through adulthood.
- Permissive. Expectations are low, and permissive parents generally are more lenient and have few rules to abide by. Even when rules are broken, permissive parents tend to avoid conflict. Without much grounding, children raised like this may be more impulsive and prone to seeking risks. Anxiety and depression risks are also in play.
- Uninvolved. The least restrictive of the four, uninvolved parents are simply that — they are uninterested and invest little time in their children. Parents who are uninvolved generally have little communication or involvement with their kids. Rules matter little to them and they don’t enforce misbehaving. Children in these types of households are more at risk of struggling in future relationships due to withdrawal and fear of abandonment. Relationships, in general, maybe anxiety-provoking due to the nature of their upbringing.
There is not a definitive right or wrong way to parent, as each situation presents different challenges. Regardless of how you parent, this is not a blame game. Ultimately, parenting style is not the only indicator of how a child turns out.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), researchers found a family history of mental health and other adverse experiences led to higher levels of anxiety and depression. They also discovered people who struggled with coping, rumination, and blame — either toward themselves or their parents — were more likely to deal with children’s mental health problems. In other words, children who did not blame themselves or others for negative experiences had better outcomes.
Impact of Parental Mental Health on Child Development
Like many illnesses and diseases, children’s mental health disorders tend to run in the family and can be passed down from parent to child. This risk increases even more if both parents have a mental health disorder.
A study by the American Journal of Psychiatry followed children of depressed parents over a 20-year period to gauge how they fared in adulthood. They found the children were three times more at risk for mental health and substance abuse disorders than children whose parents were not depressed.
It is important to know just because a parent has a mental health condition does not necessarily mean it will have an impact on their children. Instead, it is more about how a parent’s mental health affects their behavior. Many people with anxiety, depression, or other mental health disorders receive treatment and go on to live long, healthy, and successful lives.
Dealing with depression as a parent could inadvertently impact how you interact with your child. For example, you may not be as expressive or form an emotional connection, which can impact the bond between parent and child.
It may also impact the physical aspects of your child’s life. Struggling to find enough energy to leave the house or being habitually late when dropping off your child for school or appointments could jeopardize their standing in school. In turn, academic struggles may lead to negative feelings often associated with children’s mental health disorders.
These situations are often stressful for both parent and child and can deteriorate a relationship, leading to abandonment issues or problems with trust.
Be upfront with your children and talk to them about mental health. Explain what it is and how treatments exist. Use your words carefully and avoid labels. The word “sad” is softer on the ears than “depressed” just as much as “scared” or “fearful” is more digestible to a child than “anxiety.”
You should also be open and honest with how you both verbally and nonverbally communicate. Children are smarter than we give them credit for and can pick up on cues. Do not feel selfish if you need to prioritize getting help over caring for your family. Without you at full strength, your family will struggle to get by even if you are physically present.
This article is provided by Dr. Ralph Kueche (Child Psychologist). Dr. Kuechle is a Child and Adolescent Clinical Psychologist who specializes in treating children and their families who may be struggling with mood and behavioral issues. Learn more about Dr. Kuechle.