Putting on your own “oxygen mask” first

Parents’ role in kids’ mental health

By Chloe Smith, Senior Program Officer, Children’s Health Fund

When it comes to addressing their children’s mental health, parents and caregivers must be able to put on their own “oxygen masks” first. Having their own needs addressed makes it easier to fully be there for their children. But during the pandemic, so many challenges have made it hard for parents to do this.

A study published in the journal Pediatrics in 2020 found that the pandemic had worsened the mental health of both children and parents, especially for families who had been impacted in multiple ways from stressors like financial strain and life-threatening illness. Often, these families are Black, brown, or living in under-resourced communities. These are the families served by our partner programs.

“I find that when parents are frequently struggling or overwhelmed and they don’t have supports — if their basic needs aren’t being met — it’s harder to start thinking about emotional and mental health needs.” — Dr. Adaobi Okobi, medical director of our partner program in Orlando, Florida

This is worsened by other barriers that make it difficult or nearly impossible to access mental healthcare, for both parents and children. Transportation, especially if families are living in rural communities or where public transport is inaccessible, can be a major hurdle. For undocumented families or those without health insurance, mental healthcare is simply unaffordable.

Dr. Okobi and her team have also observed other issues that impact whether children receive mental healthcare. At times, even as caregivers want the best for their children, receiving care may go against cultural norms. Similarly, in some families there are prevailing beliefs that younger generations are too sensitive or that, if older family members experienced hardships and got through them, younger children should be able to as well. This could stem from many things, including parents not having the language to address their own trauma, needing to focus on meeting their basic needs, or stigmas about mental health.

Being open to sharing personal experiences publicly and on social media is increasingly common among youth, but this openness can feel dangerous for communities that have been harmed by systems of authority, such as undocumented families. Adding to all of this, some children may not feel comfortable discussing their concerns for fear of their caregivers feeling guilty, helpless, or sad.

While these dynamics can prevent some children from receiving the care they need, supportive parents can make a huge difference in their children’s mental health. Dr. Okobi recalls one patient served by her team: a young pre-teen experiencing depression. With the full support of her father, she began receiving therapy and disclosed that she had been sexually abused multiple times in the past and was having thoughts of suicide. The support and concern of her family and our partner providers gave her access to an environment where she felt comfortable to disclose what had happened to her and an opportunity to receive the healing care she deserves.

Through primary care, mental health counseling, and special mental health programs, our partner programs continue to respond to the mental health needs of children. As trusted first-responders, they provide care and counsel that is sensitive to families’ cultures and the multiple things that impact their health, including crises like the pandemic and ongoing structural injustices such as racism and xenophobia. We will continue to support their on-the-ground work strengthening children’s wellbeing in all areas of their lives.

Through advocacy, a national network of health centers & a school-based program, we work towards a future where all children get the care & support they need