Children and adolescents in the U.S. today reap the benefits of decades of medical and psychological research. We are able to diagnose and effectively treat mental health conditions to a degree that wasn’t possible only a generation ago, with a wider arsenal of pharmacological options and increasingly targeted and sophisticated non-invasive therapies.
The quality of kids’ mental health should be trending up — but the opposite is happening. Kids today are struggling more than ever.
The pandemic dealt a significant blow to everyone’s emotional health, and reduced our support networks to Zoom squares on a screen. But the writing was on the wall before March 2020: Kids’ emotional well-being was already on the decline.
In 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released its Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Data Summary & Trends Report, summarizing a decade’s worth of data. It found that the number of high schoolers reporting “such persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness in the past year that they couldn’t participate in their regular activities” rose 40% between 2009 and 2019, and the number who had considered suicide rose 36%.
In 2021, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued an advisory regarding youth mental health. The pandemic, he wrote, “exacerbated the unprecedented stresses young people already faced.”
The most recent Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey data, from 2021, show that suffering only increasing. The percentage of high schoolers who considered suicide rose again, from 18.8% in 2019 to 22.2%, and the percentage who attempted suicide rose from 8.9% to 10.2% in that two-year period.
What’s behind these startling numbers? For one thing, there is the ubiquity of social media, permeating every aspect of kids’ lives. Data indicates a correlation between social media use and mental health concerns, especially for teen girls.
There is also our unrelenting grind culture, pressuring kids at earlier ages to achieve and succeed at every undertaking so they can, in theory, eventually climb the ladder to wealth and a life free from worry.
It sounds counterintuitive, but when HuffPost asked child psychologists about the biggest threats to kids’ happiness today, they all mentioned parents’ relentless pursuit of their kids’ happiness — and how it can be counterproductive to their children’s well-being in the long term.
First, in presuming that kids are supposed to be happy all the time, we sometimes deprive them of opportunities to learn to cope with the full spectrum of human emotions in healthy ways. Second, in focusing so hard on our kids’ achievements and praising their success, we run the risk of them not knowing that we love and value them unconditionally.
Here are some ways you can avoid these pitfalls, and help lay the foundation for your kids’ emotional health and their capacity to experience deeper and more meaningful happiness.
Normalize feeling a whole range of emotions, not just happiness.
It’s easy to take an idealized view of childhood as a carefree chapter of life, but we do our kids a disservice when we assume their days are worry-free.
“Many [adults] may think that kids are just happy and have nothing to worry about,” Ariana Hoet, pediatric psychologist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Ohio and executive clinical director of On Our Sleeves, told HuffPost. “Unfortunately, that is not true — children feel strong emotions and difficult stressors just like adults do.”
Instead of making kids feel like they should be happy all the time, we should focus on helping them recognize and cope with all the different feelings they may experience.
“As adults, we must check in, normalize emotions, and find ways to build positive mental health habits in children just like we do for their physical health,” Hoet said.
Jennifer Cruz, a child psychologist at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center, explained to HuffPost: “Shielding children from stress and tough emotions may keep them from developing resilience and make future challenges tougher.”
“Expect that your child will absolutely have a range of emotions in a happy life,” Cruz said.
We can also teach children that even negative emotions have value. “Fear can help protect us, anger helps us know we are being hurt, sadness can connect us to what is important,” Cruz said.
She recommended that parents emphasize “preparing [kids] to handle challenges and know[ing] when to ask for help,” rather than “shielding children from risk or tough emotions.”
It’s hard to watch your child hurting, and the instinct to make their pain go away is strong. But it’s important that we learn to sit with them and their tough emotions.
“I think parents often interfere with their children’s happiness because they cannot let their children fail and/or tolerate disappointment,” psychotherapist Jen Hartstein told HuffPost.
“Children learn so much through failure and gain a sense of accomplishment and efficacy when they are able to pick themselves up and succeed,” Hartstein said. “That sense of accomplishment cannot be minimized.”
Have daily conversations with your children.
One way to stay abreast of your child’s emotional experience is through daily conversations. These might happen at the dinner table, at bedtime or while you’re in the car. Checking in with your child allows you to help them recognize their feelings and find ways to cope with them.
Hoet explained that a healthy parent-child relationship is an important “protective factor” that acts as a buffer to life’s stress. Daily conversations or check-ins “allow parents to create a healthy connection and relationship with their children, while also giving them insight into how a child is thinking and feeling about their day-to-day experiences,” she said.
Rather than thinking about how to make kids feel happy, Hartstein said, “I like to think of it as what habits can we build in children to help promote their mental health. These habits can build happiness, but they can also serve as buffers when difficult life circumstances happen.”
Another path to happiness is to help kids tune in to all the good in their lives.
“By focusing on appreciation,” Cruz said, “parents can also help their children develop a mindset that encourages happiness.”
A good way to do this is through modeling. When you have those daily check-ins with your child, take a moment to mention the things that you yourself are grateful for.
“We can get stuck wanting our situation to be different, and our children see that,” Cruz said. “When we as parents practice our own gratitude, that can go a long way to help children develop an appreciation for what they have and who they are.”
Show children that your love for them is unconditional, and their value isn’t contingent on measures of success.
Jennifer Wallace is a journalist and author of the forthcoming book “Never Enough: When Achievement Culture Becomes Toxic ― And What We Can Do About It.” From a survey she conducted on the topic, and an extensive series of interviews with kids, families, teachers and psychologists, Wallace concluded that “too many kids today perceive their value and worth to be contingent on their achievements — their GPAs, the number of likes they get on a post — not for who they are as people, deep at their core,” she told HuffPost.
While no parent intends for their child to feel unloved, it can be an unintended consequence of focusing on their success.
Wallace recommended that parents use these four questions, from psychologist Tina Payne Brison, to help determine what kinds of messages they are sending to their kids:
- How do you spend your money as it relates to your kids?
- What does your child’s calendar look like?
- What do you ask your children about?
- What do you argue with your children about?
“Many parents think they’re not overemphasizing achievement, but when they look at these four things, they can see how their behavior is telling their kids a different story,” Wallace said.
You may love your teen unconditionally ― but if their calendar is packed with expensive tutoring sessions and you’re constantly nagging about homework, the message you’re sending is that you value academic achievement more.
Keep comparisons to a minimum.
Another way we signal to our kids that we value their achievements over their innate worth is by comparing them to others, whether siblings or peers at school.
Comparisons are ubiquitous, and effectively amplified by social media. Not only do kids know their friends’ GPAs, they’ve also seen the entire contents of their bedroom closets.
“Comparisons about what we have, what we don’t, how we are vs. how others are... it seems we can’t get away from them, and our children are picking up on that too,” Hartstein said.
It takes a conscious effort to move away from comparisons and toward a gratitude practice like the one mentioned above. But such a move can shift mindsets, and lead to more happiness in your home.
Rethink the way that you praise your children.
“There is not one parent I’ve ever met in my research or in my personal life that didn’t fully, unconditionally love their child,” Wallace said. “But it’s how our words and our actions land on our children” that can give kids the sense that their parents’ love is dependent on their achievements.
When we praise our kids’ achievements and their success, it can sometimes have the opposite of its intended effect.
“One of the young students I interviewed said that praise made him feel like he had to continually perform in order to get [his parents’] acceptance,” Wallace said.
Instead of focusing on kids’ achievements, we can make comments that let them know we see their intrinsic worth. In her own home, Wallace said, she wants her kids to know “they are valued for who they are at their core. So I try, at every turn that I can to, to emphasize what I see as their natural strengths... their empathy, their humor, their kindness, the fact that they’re great problem solvers.”
On birthdays, for example, the family has a tradition of going around the table and each saying something positive (and non-achievement oriented) about the person whose birthday it is. She also highlights the positive things that teachers say about her kids in report card comments, such as them being helpful to others. This puts the emphasis on her kids’ personal strengths, not the grade they earned.
Show kids how much they matter — and give them chores.
Wallace determined that it’s a sense of mattering that helps well-adjusted kids stay psychologically healthy and experience happiness. The idea of mattering comes from sociologist Morris Rosenberg, who also popularized the concept of self-esteem.
Quite simply, Rosenberg found that “kids who enjoyed a healthy level of self-esteem felt like they mattered to their parents, they felt they were important and significant.” Subsequent studies of mattering identified it as a fundamental human need and a basic driver of our behavior.
Wallace defines “mattering” as “the idea of feeling valued by family, friends and community, and being depended on to add meaningful value back to families, friends and communities.”
In her interviews with kids, Wallace found that those who were doing well shared this sense of mattering, and that it “acted like a protective shield” against stress and setbacks.
One way to help kids feel that they matter in your family is to give them chores. If family dinner is an important ritual, then the person who sets the table has an important role. Others are counting on them. Volunteer work can have the same effect.
Creating a sense of mattering goes beyond loving our kids unconditionally, Wallace said. It’s “showing them in words and actions how valued they are.”