Parents worrying about kids’ mental health should consider the root of the problem | Opinion

New data shows parents are worried about a lot of things when it comes to their kids, but two major concerns may be misguided. Re-evaluating might help kids with mental health issues now — and happiness later in life.

A new Pew Research survey indicates 40% of parents worry most about their child’s mental health the most, including whether their child might be struggling with anxiety or depression. It’s not an unreasonable concern, but a deeper look shows it may be off base.

Take what parenting was like nearly 20 years ago. In 2007, a Pew Research survey found that moms’ biggest challenges raising kids were “societal factors” or “outside influences,” including drugs and alcohol. (Since only 20% of parents worry about those things now, I guess D.A.R.E. was a success?) The second biggest challenge for moms was “teaching morals.”

What stands out is how simple, yet foundational, these concerns are. Parents were just worried about making sure our kids know the difference between right and wrong. Now, we’re worried about kids’ mental health. It’s become far less taboo to discuss, and that’s good. But it’s safe to say these problems have increased at a rate that far surpasses awareness levels.

More children are suffering from depression. We should be aware of it and its devastating effects. But just as pressing for parents might be this question: What’s the root cause, especially considering that 20 years ago, not as many suffered from it? What’s happening now that wasn’t happening then?

Some causes, such as the pandemic, cannot be prevented, but the biggest change in 20 years for everyone has surely been access to a pocket-size computer that also makes phone calls. The smartphone is a wonder of an invention, to be sure, but the more kids have had access, the more depression rises. Correlation doesn’t guarantee causation, but ample research backs up that there’s a connection.

Parental concerns about smartphone use — both time on the phone and what apps kids are using — might negate some of the increasing depression and loneliness that use causes. But the average teen spends upwards of 9-11 hours daily on his or her smartphone.

Kids are also more isolated than ever, less religious than ever, and have less connection to community than their counterparts 20 years ago. These things help kids, too.

Parents’ other big worry is their kids’ future. About 88% of parents reported concerns about their children’s financial independence, including whether or not they have great jobs. This makes sense in an era of skyrocketing inflation and expensive homes. No parent wants to see their child in poverty or struggling financially.

But only 21% and 20%, of parents are worried about their children getting married or having children, respectively. That means less than a quarter of parents surveyed thought it was important for their kids to grow up and have a family or be in one – or perhaps they thought their children would be fine on that front. It’s hard to say. But, taken at face value, family seems like less of a concern.

Arthur Brooks, a happiness guru, says this is all wrong. In decades of research, Brooks has found that “faith, family, community and meaningful work dominate the fraction of our happiness that we can control. For the sake of ourselves and our communities, we need to invest deeply in those four things and forget the rest.”

So, parents are half-right. Work, particularly “meaningful” work, brings adults happiness, but that’s only a quarter of the equation. For parents, the importance of their grown kids having a family landed too low on the list of priorities; faith and community were nonexistent.

Perhaps societal norms have influenced parents to believe that a good job and a six-figure income will make their children happy, but according to data, that would only be a small portion of it. Parents can have a role in shaping these expectations now by encouraging their teens in the four areas Brooks outlines. And he believes that focusing on those factors could help combat kids’ mental health issues, too.

Parents have a lot on their plates. Worrying about your children is normal. But it doesn’t help kids or their parents if they’re worried about the wrong things. Look for the root cause of depression, and see if less smartphone use, more outside time, and interaction with friends, family or a faith community can help.

While it’s normal to want a future for kids that includes a nice home, a great car and a hefty bank account, research shows nobody is happy with just money — they also need faith and relationships. Parents would do well to encourage those, too.