Are Parents Contributing to the Youth Mental Health Crisis?

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It is no secret that the last 2 years have been incredibly challenging for families everywhere. As medical and mental health professionals in the field of child welfare, we are seeing an increasingly acute mental health crisis across the country, with young people being particularly affected. As we search for solutions for this crisis, we must also urgently identify its root causes.

Just this spring, the CDC released new data on U.S. adolescents that included many alarming findings about youth mental health and the scenarios that cause heightened anxiety for many children. According to the study, more than half of participating youth (55%) reported experiencing emotional abuse by a parent or other adult in the home, including being sworn at, insulted, or put down. Prior to the pandemic, self-reported rates of psychological maltreatment by a caregiver were still too high, but were much, much lower than what was reported this year (about 10% to 30% lifetime exposure).

While many professionals have pointed out that overall rates of child maltreatment declined during the pandemic, we suspect this is actually due to reduced opportunity for abuse to be observed and reported by doctors, teachers, third-party caregivers, and other mandated reporters. The CDC self-report data clearly tells a different story. This contrast highlights the importance of multiple perspectives when establishing prevalence rates of abuse and neglect.

These new data can be understood in the context of the increased stressors on parents and families that occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic. The unprecedented exploding mental health crisis in the U.S. includes mental health crises among adolescents as well increased stressors for parents, teachers, and other caregivers.

Even before the global health crisis created by COVID-19, one of the risk factors for psychological maltreatment of children was parental and familial stress; these pressures tend to reduce patience, sensitive caregiving, and effective discipline strategies among caregivers. Needless to say, the pandemic has played a significant role in increasing parental stress in a number of ways, inducing intense fear of becoming ill and/or taking care of sick family members; decreasing access to socialization and exercise, which reduce stress; and losing one’s job and/or having to juggle working from home, childcare, and children’s virtual learning.

Regardless of whether we’re still in the depths of the COVID crisis or moving toward endemicity, we need to create more supportive environments for parents, families, and children. The question then is how can we do a better job of supporting parents so they can support and promote their children’s well-being regardless of their own stress? What can we do now to ensure that the next generation of teens is less likely to be psychologically harmed by their parents?

From a health profession perspective, there are several tactics available to help decrease instances of psychological maltreatment. The first set of tactics focuses on improving parenting. This primarily involves encouraging and supporting adoption of a positive parenting philosophy and practices. Through positive parenting, caregivers can focus more on respectful interactions, encouragement, and guidance through collaborative problem-solving to enhance children’s cooperation and maintain a loving relationship with their child. This takes the emphasis away from harsh and punitive methods, which tend to increase conflict and discord in the parent-child relationship. We also believe that through promotion of positive parenting, we can change social norms around yelling, screaming, and harsh punishment — shifting social parenting norms to kinder and more respectful tactics and empathic disciplinary strategies.

The second set of tactics relies on institutional change. We know that providing support for parents and caregivers will ultimately help create and sustain relationships that are healthier and safer for children. From a practical perspective, this means more affordable and accessible childcare — and proactive planning for childcare in a pandemic scenario or other emergency. This also means more supportive spaces for parents to share feelings and learn how to cope with stress, such as parent support groups and parenting education resources. Much can also be done to enhance a variety of environments where parents and children spend time — from waiting rooms to supermarkets to schools and the like — to make them less stressful and more supportive of parents.

Lastly, educating parents about the different forms that psychological maltreatment can take will go a long way. Many parents may not even be familiar with the definition of psychological maltreatment or the six major subtypes — spurning, terrorizing, isolating, exploiting/corrupting, denying emotional responsiveness, and failing to provide services. Therefore, parents may not be aware that their behavior falls into this category. While many people are familiar with the idea of verbal abuse, they may not understand that many other types of parenting could become psychological maltreatment if persistent or severe. Educating parents about the different psychological maltreatment types as well as the impact of their actions on their children at an early stage in parenting is an incredibly effective way to avoid abuse and maltreatment in the long-term.

Ultimately, the issue of psychological maltreatment among families is a matter of mental health. Psychological maltreatment may be a predominant driver of youth mental health challenges, but on the flip side, adult mental health challenges — especially stress — are likely the predominant driver of subsequent child maltreatment. If we create more supportive safe spaces for caregivers to learn and grow, and create institutional shifts in the systems that continue to present barriers for parents, we have a shot at effectively addressing the nationwide mental health crisis.

Amy Baker, PhD, is the research director at New York Foundling’s Vincent J. Fontana Center for Child Protection. Mel Schneiderman, PhD, is senior vice president and co-founder of New York Foundling’s Vincent J. Fontana Center for Child Protection, a national child protection center focusing on the primary prevention of child maltreatment.

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