Parents of teens with mental health issues need their own support, too. It's about 'putting on your own air mask first,' expert says.

Illustration by Victoria Ellis for Yahoo ; Photo: Getty Images
Parental anxieties "can be felt and transferred — and even exacerbate what the teen can be feeling," says one expert, stressing the importance of parents trying therapy, too. (Illustration by Victoria Ellis for Yahoo; Photo: Getty Images)

When teens face mental-health crises — which they do at alarming rates, according to study after study— parents bear much of the brunt of their pain. Not only is it excruciating to watch your kid suffer and exhausting to be vigilant about their well-being, it can be soul-crushing to bear the inevitable guilt.

"I am freaking out, can't sleep and can't eat much. It's so hard to see your child suffering," a New York City mom of a 14-year-old girl who "is having such low self-esteem," tells Yahoo Life. She adds that it all makes her feel "like such a failure as a parent." As far as her own self-care goes, she admits, "I'm not doing very well in that regard."

It's why, when teens are struggling, experts stress, it's important for parents to get help for themselves, too.

"I think it goes back to the cliché about putting on your own air mask first — but sometimes we don't recognize that when it applies to mental health," George James, a Philadelphia-based marriage and family therapist, tells Yahoo Life. But emotional wellness is a parent-child symbiosis that starts early, he says.

"There's been information about when children are infants and they start to cry, and the parent gets anxious and picks up the child and child gets louder," due to the baby "feeling anxiety of the parent as they're holding them," James explains. And it stands to reason, he adds, that even years later, parental anxieties "can be felt and transferred — and even exacerbate what the teen can be feeling."

When people have kids, says Samantha Quigneaux, national director of family therapy services for Newport Healthcare, "it's like your heart lives outside your chest. So, if you're watching your child struggle, it can cause emotional distress — and when you add in risky behaviors or suicidal ideation, the fear becomes all-consuming." She adds that "parents feel a large responsibility and take it upon themselves, and it can become their own anxiety and their own depression … because they're so emotionally connected with the child that's struggling."

In fact, new research shows that parents are suffering from anxiety and depression at roughly the same rate as teens.

"It would be just as right to sound the alarm about parents' mental health as about teens' mental health," warn those survey results, published in June by Harvard University in the report "Caring for the Caregivers: The Critical Link Between Parent and Teen Mental Health." Among the findings: While 18% of teens reported suffering anxiety, about 20% of mothers and 15% of fathers reported it, too. And while 15% of teens reported depression, so did about 16% of mothers and 10% of fathers did.

Even more reason why finding a firm support system, say experts, is vital.

Why should parents consider therapy?

For starters, stresses Barbara Greenberg, a teen-focused therapist based in Connecticut, parents taking care of their own mental health sets a clear example. "We know the most powerful way to learn is by observational learning, or role modeling," she tells Yahoo Life. "So if parents model that they are prioritizing their own mental health, it's a powerful message" for their teen to receive.

Greenberg suggests that "before a child gets distressed and sick, [a parent] should be prioritizing mental health… and a big way is through balance, knowing that it's OK to rest, it's OK to take alone time."

Quigneaux compares valuing mental help to that of physical. "If you have a broken bone, you go to a doctor, because you accept you cannot heal that yourself," she says. "Parents need to accept where their limitations are, and it doesn't mean they don't love their child. It's really important to accept that getting help is a sign of strength."

Seeking therapy, she says, can provide a whole host of resources for the parent. "It can sometimes unlock your own experiences, your own childhood, helping a parent be aware of what makes them who they are," she says. "It can provide an opportunity for reflection and for other resources, such as how they can …come up with a safety plan if there are risky behaviors or suicidal behaviors."

Finally, says James, whether your teen is in crisis or not, they are dealing with a lot — which means you are, too. "There's their well-being, their grades, interactions with friends, getting involved with anything risky," he says. "I work with a lot of clients who were at the place of hitting their head against the wall, and sometimes coming to a therapist allows them to get it out and also [hear] a different perspective … which can give people more energy to keep trying and to feel like it's not over or that they've failed."

Individual vs. family therapy

"As a therapist, I will say 'all of the above'" when it comes to individual therapy for a parent vs. family therapy, says James. "But I do recommend for folks to have your own therapist, a place where you can talk through it all."

Family therapy, he explains, is beneficial "if some hurt or harm from the past that needs to be talked through, or a transition is coming up, such as a move or college or a divorce."

But, Greenberg notes, "Family therapy is delicate with a teenager, because they're often looking for their own space… and it's important to be in a space without their parents — where they can be accountable but won't be spilling their secrets." Instead, she is careful to involve parents in their teen's individual therapy.

"I feel like the child cannot get better in a vacuum without the parents … so I draw up a contract that says I'll be checking in with parents just to let them know if we are making progress, and what parents might be able to do to be helpful," Greenberg says. "Nobody is more instrumental in a kid's life than a parent or guardian."

Quigneaux, meanwhile, encourages family therapy for teens, because it can take some of the pressure off. "It's never just one person that struggles … so this allows everyone to be present and heard and equally accountable," she says, noting that sometimes an adolescent will withhold information about the extent of their pain in order to protect a parent; family therapy provides a safe and monitored place in which to let it all out.

"To engage as a family and say, 'We can solve this together, you're not something broken to be fixed,' is a powerful statement," she explains. "Having the whole family be present creates a broader context and widens the foundation for healing."

Other options include parent coaching, she says, which is "a little more concrete, offering support like setting boundaries and limitations, where therapy is more insight-based."

Bottom line, says Quigneaux: "You can't pour from an empty cup, so we have to take care of ourselves in order to take care of those around us… There is this idea that when you become a parent it has to be all about the child, but can we love our children if we are not taking care of ourselves? [Doing so] is not selfish — it's self-care and it's self-preservation."

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