The latest data from the U.S. Department of Health shows more than a quarter of children in America are depressed, and more than 20% deal with anxiety. However, as more parents become tuned into their teen’s mental health, they may inadvertently be creating more stress and worry for their child.

Dr. Pilar Bradshaw with Eugene Pediatric Associates says the pandemic only exacerbated an existing problem. “Before the pandemic we had very high percentages of kids who had depression and anxiety,” she says. “That has continued to skyrocket, even after COVID has eased because kids going back to school was also stressful for them.”

But parents who notice the problem and then obsess about a quick-fix solution are only making it worse, she says.

“Something that we’re noticing is that parents are freaking out appropriately about ‘What can I do to support my child?’” she says. “Sometimes, inadvertently, parents are making it worse because we are hyper-focusing on our child’s happiness. And then when kids think, ‘But I don’t feel happy, oh no,’ that is actually adding to their stress. So, some of the experts in the field of pediatric mental health are trying to help parents recognize the outcome isn’t to make your kids perfectly happy, it’s to help them have the tools to recognize when they’re not doing well and to get themselves better.”

Improving communication
Dr. Bradshaw suggests that all of us can benefit from taking time as a family to concentrate on communication. “As a family, sit down and listen to each other and say, ‘How are you really doing? How are you really feeling?’ and then allow our kids to talk,” she says. “And then try doing things each day repetitively as a family that allow us to naturally change our focus from the negative to the positive.”

The conversation doesn’t have to be about anything big, Dr. Bradshaw says. “It can be tiny things, like go around the dinner table and each say one thing that made you happy that day: ‘I saw a really beautiful flower when I was out on a walk’; ‘Somebody said something nice to me at work.’ It can be at bedtime, listing three things you’re looking forward to. It could be coming up with a person you’re grateful for today. It can be journaling something positive.”

By taking these small steps, we can begin retraining our brains to focus on the positive instead of the negative, Dr. Bradshaw says. “If you get yourself as a family to commit to looking for little things that made you happy, pretty soon you’re going to find that you’re looking for those things all day.”

Build a support network
The process to improve communication and think positive may not be easy, but don’t obsess over trying to be perfect, Dr. Bradshaw says. Even the best parents need help. Build a support network of people you trust.

“Reach out for your village,” she says. “Find your doctor, find their favorite teacher. Find their school counselor. Find their babysitter or other members of your family that have a good connection to your kid. You as the parent lean on that village, and then just make small changes to what your family does that is aimed at this business of turning your frown upside down. Pretty soon you’ll find that your whole outlook is better.”