Children’s mental health tops list of parent worries, survey finds | CNN


Forty percent of US parents are “extremely” or “very” worried that their children will struggle with anxiety or depression at some point, a new survey finds.

The Pew Research Center report said mental health was the greatest concern among parents, followed by bullying, which worries 35% of parents. These concerns trumped fears of kidnapping, dangers of drugs and alcohol, teen pregnancy and getting into trouble with the police.

Concerns varied by race, ethnicity and income level, with roughly 4 in 10 Latino and low-income parents and 3 in 10 Black parents saying they are extremely or very worried that their children could be shot, compared with about 1 in 10 high-income or White parents.

Nearly two-thirds of the respondents said that being a parent has been at least somewhat harder than they expected, about 41% say that being a parent is tiring, and 29% say it is stressful all or most of the time.

The report captured the perceptions of a nationally representative sample of 3,757 US parents whose children were younger than 18 in 2022.

Experts say mental health issues among children and adolescents have skyrocketed in recent years.

“I would say over the last 10 years, since I’ve been practicing as a general pediatrician, I have seen a shift both in the amount of patients and of all ages dealing with anxiety and depression. And their parents being concerned about this is a key issue,” said Dr. Katherine Williamson, a pediatrician and spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics. “Even before the pandemic, we were seeing skyrocketing numbers of kids and adolescents dealing with mental health issues, and that has increased exponentially since the pandemic.”

Suicide became the second leading cause of death among children 10 to 14 during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Mental health-related emergency room visits among adolescents 5 to 11 and 12 to 17 also jumped 24% and 31%, respectively.

Many parents feel helpless when their children have mental health issues because they don’t feel equipped to offer support in this area.

“They are unable to relieve [mental health issues] and address that as they could if they were struggling with their grades or other things that seem more traditional to for kids to struggle with,” said Allen Sabey, a family therapist at the Family Institute at Northwestern University.

Parents trying to “work out and look at and connect with their own feelings will give them important information about what feels off or OK for their kid,” he said.

When it comes to anxiety and depression in children, pediatricians say, parents can watch for signs like decreased interest or pleasure in things they previously enjoyed, poor self-esteem and changes in mood, appetite or sleep.

Experts also say parents should consider the amount and content of social media their child consumes, as research has found that it can have negative effects on their mental health.

But, they say, having more parents recognize the importance of mental health in children is a step in the right direction.

“I have always felt there’s been so much resistance to seeking care for mental health among the population that I serve. And I am actually happy that since the Covid pandemic, at least people now are recognizing this as a very key and important health need,” said Dr. Maggi Smeal, a pediatrician at Stanford Medicine Children’s Health.

Smeal hopes that “all people that are interacting with children can be aware of these issues and feel empowered to identify and advocate for these children, to tell them to go to their primary care provider and have an assessment just like you do if your kid has a cough or a fever or ear infection.”

The number of parents concerned about gun violence reflects the fact that guns are the leading cause of death among children in the US, research has showed. From 2019 to 2020, the rate of firearm-related deaths increased 29.5% – more than twice the increase as in the general population.

“Gun violence is a real risk to our kids today. And that is both being killed by somebody else as well as suicide in the face of the mental health issues that we’re seeing today,” Williamson said.

The survey found that Black, Hispanic and lower-income parents were most likely to be concerned about gun violence, a finding that’s consistent with the communities most affected. Research has shown that from 2018 to 2021, the rate of firearm-related deaths doubled among Black youth and increased 50% among Hispanic youth. Another study found that children living in low-income areas are at higher risk of firearm-related death.

Direct and indirect exposure to gun violence can contribute to mental health problems.

“Even if they hear gunshots in their community, they hear adults talking, there’s all different ways that children are traumatized and victimized by gun violence. And what we see is all the symptoms of anxiety in even the youngest of children. We see children with somatic complaints – stomachaches, headaches. They have post-traumatic stress disorder,” Smeal said.

Most of the parents in the survey said parenting is harder than they expected, and that they feel judgment from various sources.

“The findings of this of this report were, as a pediatrician and a parent, just exactly what you would expect. Parenting is the hardest thing you’ll ever do, and there are very high levels of stress and fatigue, especially in the parents of young children,” Smeal said.

One of the best things parents can do is lean on fellow parents, experts say.

“The main challenge for parents is our siloed independent nature sometimes, and so we want to find people who we trust and kind of work towards being more vulnerable and open with,” Sabey said. “To where it’s like not just you and your kid, but it’s a kind of a group of people caring and working together.”

Pediatricians emphasize that no parent is perfect and that the most important thing you can do is to just be there for your child.

“We know that the best chance for a child to be successful and happy is for them to have at least one person in their life who believes in them and advocates for them. So I think it’s important for parents to know that there’s no such thing as a perfect parent, because we are all human, and humans are imperfect by nature, but that is OK,” Williamson said.

A parent’s job is to “really make sure that they know how important they are and they have a voice in this world,” she said. “Every child will have their own unique struggles, whether it is academically, emotionally, physically. Our job is to help them with the areas [where] they struggle, but even more, help them recognize their strengths.”

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Does having a teen feel like living with a chimpanzee? You may not be far off, study shows | CNN

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Chimpanzee teens may not be so different from the ones living in our homes, a new study says.

Except that your teen might be more impulsive.

Researchers worked with 40 chimpanzees born in the wild while they were at a sanctuary in the Republic of Congo, playing games that tested the adolescent animals’ orientation toward risk-taking and impulsivity, according to the study published January 23 in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General by the American Psychological Association.

“Human adolescents are grappling with changing bodies and brains, and tend to be more impulsive, risk-seeking, and less able to regulate emotions than adults,” said lead study author Dr. Alexandra Rosati, associate professor of psychology and anthropology at the University of Michigan, via email. “Chimpanzees face many of the same kinds of challenges as humans as they grow up.”

The study described chimpanzees’ adolescence as a period from about ages 8 to 15 in a 50-year life span. Like young humans, they experience rapid hormone changes, new social bonds, increased aggression and a competition for social status.

Teen chimpanzees are overlooked in studies compared with infants and adults, said Dr. Aaron Sandel, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin, who was not involved in the current study.

“For a while there was a pretty big gap in the literature on (chimpanzee) adolescents,” Sandel said, noting that researchers often don’t focus on this period. Scientists may avoid studying teen chimps because their own human experiences with teenage years are complicated, he said.

The new study found that adolescent chimpanzees were more likely to take risks in their games than their adult counterparts, but they just as likely would wait for a greater delayed reward.

But human teens are known to be more likely to take a smaller, more immediate reward, the study noted.

The chimpanzees underwent two tests with food rewards. These animals tended to dislike cucumbers while liking peanuts somewhat and loving bananas.

The first test involved a bit of a gamble. Both adult and teen chimpanzees were asked to choose between two containers: one that always had peanuts and another that had either the dreaded cucumber or treasured banana, the study said.

The adolescent chimps were more likely to take a risk and go for the cucumber or banana container than the adults, the study said. Both groups showed similar negative reactions – such as moaning, whimpering, screaming and banging on the table – when they ended up with a cucumber.

The second test resembled a well-known one that has been given to human children. Chimpanzees had the option of having one banana slice immediately or waiting for a minute and then getting three slices.

Both adults and adolescents waited for the three slices at a similar rate, but the teens were more likely to throw a fit while they waited a minute, the study said.

In a similar test, human teens were more likely to take the smaller treat right away, according to the study.

“Prior work indicates that chimpanzees are quite patient compared to other animals, and this study shows that their ability to delay gratification is already mature at a fairly young age, unlike in humans,” Rosati said.

Sandel noted that it is important to be careful about comparing the experience of humans with other animals. While primates are our closest relatives, we are different species, he pointed out.

So how might a parent handle a teen who engages in risky behavior and hates to wait for a reward?

The first step is to understand what is going on in their developing brains, said Dr. Hina Talib, an adolescent medicine specialist and associate professor of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City.

“I think teenagers get a bad rap,” she said. “We often think of them as risky little devils. It does come from some element of truth.”

The human teenage years are a time of explosive growth and development, she added.

Their brains are wired to seek out new experiences and information, which often means taking risks, Talib said.

At this time, they can try new things, build their ideas of who they are and try on different identities, said Tina Bryson, a Pasadena, California, therapist and author of “The Power of Showing Up: How Parental Presence Shapes Who Our Kids Become and How Their Brains Get Wired.”

They learn from the information they gain, which can help them manage their behavior better – eventually, Talib said.

Families can encourage them to try new things, she said, while providing ground rules and support that will help keep them safe.

“We want you to go anywhere and do everything … Here is where we might step in or where we have house rules about something,’” Talib recommended that parents say. Your conversations should be “coming from a perspective of we are here as the floor, as the safety net as you go and have these amazing trapeze experiences.”

And while their brains are growing a lot, not every area is able to be fully and optimally utilized at the same time.

Late middle and early high schoolers might be relying on the parts of the brain that rule emotion and reactivity, she added, while their decision-making and reasoning parts are busy growing.

That doesn’t mean that teens are not capable of good decision-making and long-term planning, she added – you just have to help set them up for success.

“When things are calm, they are able to problem solve just as well as adults,” Talib said. Help them stay calm when they are in trouble and need to solve a problem and save the difficult conversations for when they are no longer stressed out, she added.

Instead of worrying about how to get rid of their impulsivity, Bryson recommended finding ways to help strengthen empathetic, thoughtful, and reasoned decision-making.

Encourage them to pause before acting and walk through the thinking process with them, she said. You can also talk through how you think through your own decisions, Bryson said.

And while their brains may be undergoing changes, be sure to call out the things they are doing well, Talib said.

“The more you do that, the more you help them see themselves in a positive light, the more that gets hardwired in them,” she said, “and they are better able to face the world around them.”

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