Parents ‘In Denial’ About Teens’ Depression and Anxiety


Depression is a hot-button topic when it comes to teens — for good reason. An exclusive survey of moms and dads by Yahoo Parenting and Silver Hill, a non-profit hospital for the treatment of psychiatric and addictive disorders, reveals 65 percent of parents polled are concerned that their teen might be suffering from anxiety or depression. (Photo: Getty Images).

Parents are in the dark when it comes to dealing with their teens’ anxiety and depression, finds an exclusive new survey conducted by Yahoo Parenting and Silver Hill, a non-profit hospital for the treatment of psychiatric and addictive disorders

“Everybody is in denial about depression and anxiety,” Aaron Krasner, MD, the adolescent transitional living service chief at Silver Hill, in New Canaan, Conn., tells Yahoo Parenting. “So it makes sense to me that until the sh-t is really hitting the fan, parents and kids aren’t interested in talking about these problems. In some ways, parents don’t want to know and would rather do anything than acknowledge that their kid has a problem.”

Nearly 65 percent of more than 3,100 parents polled are concerned that their teen might be suffering from anxiety or depression. And nearly half report that their teens have confided that they’ve felt depressed, anxious, or overwhelmed.

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But despite these numbers, there’s a disconnect: 18 percent of the teens have been formally diagnosed with anxiety, depression, or ADHD. And, of that, just 9 percent of parents admit that their teen takes medication for anxiety, depression, and ADHD.

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Miscalculating teens’ emotions and behavior is an all too common problem, it seems. Take the fact that slightly more than a quarter of parents reported that their teen is “very happy” and another 59 percent said they were “somewhat happy.” That finding is far different than a 2013 survey from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) that reveals 30 percent of teenagers they polled reported that they had felt sad or hopeless almost every day for 2 or more weeks in a row — and 17 percent considered attempting suicide.

“There’s a huge discord between parental perception and teen’s self-report,” says Krasner. “It’s shocking.” 

Then there’s the stigma associated with mental illness, which Krasner says often winds up being a barrier to appropriate care. Unlike a teen hospitalized with a broken leg, for example, “no one is sending my patients roses or chocolates and parents feel that they have to hide that their child is getting appropriate medical treatment.”

But it’s important to note that thinking of psychiatric illnesses as character flaws is an obsolete idea. “They are neurological problems that have treatments,” he adds. “What really needs to happen is parents making a gentle nudge in the direction of having a conversation about these issues and checking in with their kids.”

Ditto, when it comes to social media. “Working in the trenches with teens with mental health and substance use disorders, I am alarmed to see the clear survey results confirming the widening digital and social media divide between parents and their teens,” says Krasner.

Nearly two-thirds of parents in our poll say that their teen uses Snapchat or a similar messaging app, for example, but fewer than half report that they have the password to their teen’s phone. As a result, Krasner says, parents are “out of touch” in terms of the way that technology impacts kids social lives because they’re not monitoring their kids.

Twenty percent of parents, in fact, think that technology has prevented their teen from forming close friendships, and another 15 percent admit that they’re “not sure.” 

“I don’t think parents are aware that social interactions are no longer confined to one-on-one interactions,” Krasner says. “Social media means that you’re in a perpetual state of contact with people. And when you’re young and vulnerable, that has major-league implications.”

Parents perceive exchanges on social media, Facebook, for example, as a diversion, a place to post photos and see what’s going on, he says. Teens’ exchanges on Snapchat and other sites in contrast are “immediate and ongoing social connections that are very consuming.” The number of likes a post will get, for instance, makes an impact on vulnerable teens’ self-esteem. 

“There are worlds upon worlds in social media and the Internet,” says the doctor, “that parents are just not aware of.” 

Another aspect of teens’ lives that moms and dads are in the dark about? Bullying. More than 18 percent say that they are “not sure” if their child had been bullied, but more than half of parents report that they don’t think their teen believes he or she is popular.

Parents have little clue about their teens’ substance use including alcohol and drugs, either. More than three-quarters of parents say that they think their teen “never” uses drugs or alcohol. But per the CDC, 66 percent of students say they have had at least one drink of alcohol on at least 1 day during their life, and 41 percent of students had used marijuana one or more times during their life.

“This reflects a dramatic underestimate of teenage substance use and again points toward the need for education for parents both with respect to communicating with their teens about drug and alcohol use as well as looking for telltale signs of drug and alcohol consumption,” says Krasner.

What the parents we polled seem to be actively avoiding, on the other hand, is discussing sex with their teen. Almost 31 percent have never had “the talk” though about 71 percent say they think today’s teens are too sexually promiscuous.

“Teens can be mercurial, hard to read, and sometimes hard to connect with,” Krasner acknowledges. “That’s because they feel anxious and self-conscious about the explosion of changes both inside and around them. But that’s what makes them so vulnerable – more than ever before, teens need help to navigate their increasingly complex social worlds.”

His advice, then, to parents of teens regarding all these issues? Simply “be with them. Find them. Connect with them.”

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