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Nothing is more important to parents than their children’s happiness and overall health.
That’s why it’s unsurprising that a recent report revealed that mental health is a parent's biggest concern about their children’s wellbeing. This research also shows that 40% of U.S. parents are “extremely” or “very” worried about their child’s mental health.
Another recent survey of working parents found that the number one quality they’re lacking is a state of confidence in their ability to address their children’s mental health needs.
This concern inevitably bleeds over into the workplace. It’s extremely challenging to balance a job with a child’s mental health, especially when you’re unsure of how to help your kids.
With that in mind, let’s explore this set of interconnected issues and consider how workplace leaders might relieve some of that burden.
Children’s mental health continues to worsen
In late 2021, a coalition representing over 77,000 physicians and 200 children’s hospitals declared children’s health a national emergency. Around the same time, the U.S. Surgeon General also declared children’s mental health a national crisis, writing:
“Mental health challenges in children, adolescents, and young adults are real and widespread. Even before the pandemic, an alarming number of young people struggled with feelings of helplessness, depression and thoughts of suicide—and rates have increased over the past decade.”
The CDC recently released a large set of surveys about the wellbeing and mental health of high schoolers, and the results paint a sobering picture:
- More than 40% of students felt so sad or hopeless that they couldn’t engage in regular activities for at least two weeks during the previous year
- 1 in 5 high schoolers say they’ve witnessed violence in their communities
- Around 9% of students have experienced forced sex
- A third of female students contemplated suicide in the last year
- Nearly 3 in 5 teen girls felt persistently sad or hopeless in 2021, an almost 60% increase since the CDC began tracking this in 2017
- 3.5% carry a gun
They also found significant increases in the number of young people who seriously considered suicide, made a plan to commit suicide, and attempted suicide.
The next generation of adults are really struggling.
Resilience is key for improving children’s mental health
Resilience—the ability to cope with and adapt to adversity, upheaval, trauma, tragedy, threats to physical and mental safety and insecurity—is how children deal with challenges and associated feelings of stress, anxiety and uncertainty.
Resiliency is deeply connected with mental health and wellbeing, providing protection from mental health conditions, offsetting the risk of mental health conditions due to trauma or other risk factors, and helping children and adults cope with existing mental health challenges.
Anna Masten, a psychology professor who studies resilience in children, notes that “resilience is less a specific trait and more a network of overlapping ones, like flexibility, confidence, and even societal supports, like health care and schooling. But the crucial part is that children feel safe and supported. To weather a storm, you need a solid shelter.”
How to nurture resilience for children’s mental health
The single most important factor determining whether a child becomes resilient is the presence of stable, healthy relationships with supportive adults who show up for them on a regular basis.
This can be a parent, caregiver, teacher, or other mentor figure. Ideally, children have multiple adults in their life who can fulfill this role.
Researchers have identified some general tenets for building resilience in children:
- Supportive adult-child relationships
- Building a sense of self-efficacy and perceived control
- Providing opportunities to strengthen adaptive skills and self-regulatory capacities
- Mobilizing sources of faith, hope, and cultural traditions
Self-regulation includes calming yourself down while having an emotional reaction to stimuli, adjusting to changes in expectations, dealing with frustration in a healthy way, and generally modulating behavior according to the situation without having uncontrolled outbursts.
These are skills we all use throughout our lives. In some ways, human behavior is fundamentally about self-regulation. There is much in the world that we have no control over, but our own reaction to outside stimuli is something we can control. This is a lesson and a skill set that children need to learn early.
Dr. Matthew Rouse, a clinical psychologist who specializes in child development and behavior, notes that “the key to learning self-regulation skills is not to avoid situations that are difficult for kids to handle, but to coach kids through them and provide a supportive framework—clinicians call it “scaffolding” the behavior you want to encourage—until they can handle these challenges on their own.”
This is where it’s important for kids to have supportive adults to guide them through difficulties, modeling and teaching them how to cope with adversity. No child is going to make it through life without challenges. How they bounce back from and deal with those challenges is a big part of mitigating poor mental health outcomes.
How workplace leaders can help strengthen children’s mental health
Psychology professor Maureen Perry-Jenkins recently conducted a longitudinal study following working class families over a 10 year period. She found that workplace dynamics had a spillover effect into employees’ home lives and the lives of their children.
The study data showed that “parents who experienced more autonomy on the job and who had more supportive supervisors and coworkers were in turn warmer and more engaged when interacting with their infants.
“And this has major, long-term implications for those infants’ development, as a vast body of research has shown that warm and responsive parenting in a child’s first year of life boosts their level of attachment with their parents as well as their emotional regulation, social skills, and academic achievement.”
In other words, parents' experiences as employees have a direct impact on their children’s early mental health, forming the basis for future emotional regulation, behavior, and relationship building. There’s an important feedback loop here.
When working parents are employed in unsupportive environments that contribute to stress and other mental health issues, they take that home with them, leading to a less healthy home and family life—which then spills back over at work as those unhealthy family dynamics cause stress.
Additionally, the study author found that although systemic policy is important in supporting working parents, ensuring employees feel respected and supported on a personal level has a major impact on their work experience—and subsequently, their mental health at home.
Promoting awareness, supporting health relationships
The On Our Sleeves survey of working parents found that employers can positively impact employees and their families by creating a work culture where it’s acceptable to talk about mental health. It’s equally important to provide employees with the resources and support they need to take care of their own mental health, as well as their children’s.
Furthermore, 88% of working parents are interested in courses, resources, and education about children’s mental health offered through their employer.
Along with providing educational resources in the workplace, HR and benefits leaders can also support working parents and their children’s mental health by:
- Talking about mental health any time physical health or overall wellbeing are discussed at work
- Ensuring that employees know about pediatric mental health benefits and resources
- Breaking down mental health stigma in the workplace
- Providing mental health support for the entire family
- Encouraging strong work-life boundaries so parents and caregivers can be present with their family when they aren’t working
- Asking parents how they’re doing in surveys and informal check-ins
- Creating peer support groups and/or ERGs for parents and caregivers
Workplace leaders are in a position to be strong advocates for children’s mental health by spreading awareness, supporting working parents, breaking down stigma, and providing concrete mental health benefits for the entire family.
Making children’s mental health a priority
Childhood mental health is something we’ve only recently started to widely acknowledge and address.
As research continues to show young people’s mental health in crisis, it’s become clear that we need to collectively rethink how we understand it. After all, it’s the starting point for lifelong mental health and something that affects all of us.
For parents and caregivers, children’s mental health is their number one concern, ranking above all other worries in regard to their children’s wellbeing. This is an issue employees are stressing about at work, as they miss work days to attend to their child’s mental health challenges and struggle to know how to help their kids.
Workplace leaders are in a primary position to advocate for mental health support at work, and become champions for awareness and education that makes children’s mental health a priority.
Here are more ways to normalize conversations about children’s mental health in the workplace, and effectively support working parents.