On Your Health

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How Parents Affect Their Child's Mental Health

If there’s something all parents can agree on, it’s wanting to see your child succeed and live a long, healthy life. Life comes with challenges, though. Many are uncontrollable, while others are a result of actions or experiences your child faces.

As part of Children's Mental Health Week, we explored how parenting styles and a parent’s mental health impacts their children. This covers how a parent can pass down mental health disorders to children and which behavioral and emotional patterns can have a lasting impact on childhood development.

Adverse experiences and their impact on children

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’s even a dedicated term for these types of negative events — adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). In short, they’re potentially traumatic situations children face, such as violence at home or divorce. Here’s 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 experience 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 doesn’t guarantee a future problem, rather, it heightens a child’s future risk of 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.

In our state, it’s imperative to identify and fix these issues before they become greater problems. Why? Oklahoma is No. 2 in divorce rate behind only Nevada, according to the CDC, and it has the second-highest incarceration rate behind Louisiana.

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 underparenting and neglecting your children, you’ll want to avoid overparenting 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. For more information, read our blog on mental health and brain development in teens.

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 punishment when those rules aren’t met, but there is little warmth involved. In this structured environment, it’s more of a my-way-or-the-highway type attitude. Without needed support, children may never feel they’re 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. Growing up in an authoritative household provides a child with a solid foundation, but they’re 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’re 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, may be anxiety-provoking due to the nature of their upbringing.

There isn’t a definitive right or wrong way to parent, as each situation presents different challenges. Regardless of how you parent, this isn’t a blame game. Ultimately, parenting style isn’t the only indicator of how a child turns out.

Take this psychological study, for example. The 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 mental health problems. In other words, children who didn’t blame themselves or others for negative experiences had better outcomes.


Impact of parental mental health on child development

Like many illnesses and diseases, 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 weren’t depressed.

It’s important to know just because a parent has a mental health condition doesn’t necessarily mean it will have an impact on their children. Instead, it’s more about how a parent’s mental health affects their behavior. Many people with anxiety, depression or other 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 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 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. Don’t 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’re physically present. You can learn more here about how to prepare for your first mental health visit.


If you or your loved ones need assistance with mental health disorders, contact INTEGRIS Mental Health to set up an appointment or to access a free mental health screening.


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