No, Mom, you didn’t mess up

A mother, devastated upon learning of her teen-aged children's mental health issues, is unfairly shouldering the blame, Carolyn Hax notes. Struggle is universal; to declare yourself a "failure" because your kids have mental health diagnoses likely does more harm than good.



February 27, 2024 - 1:38 PM

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Adapted from an online discussion.

Hello, Carolyn: Yesterday my teenage son was diagnosed with anxiety disorder and was prescribed meds. Two months ago, my teen daughter was diagnosed with depression and put on meds. I’ve been a stay-at-home mom their whole lives and, along with my husband, their dad, have done my absolute best to raise them to be healthy and happy.

We love them immeasurably and do our best every day to support, listen to and nurture them. I’m feeling like such a failure that both my kids are struggling. Can you help me frame this better? How did I screw up the one incredibly important thing I was supposed to be doing?

— Mom Failure

Mom Failure: Stop. You did not “screw up.”

Kids everywhere are having an extraordinarily difficult time right now. Depression and anxiety are way up, stress is up, mental health resources are strained, and schools are overburdened, underfunded and understaffed.

You got your kids the help they need! You’re doing your job. Your listening, support and nurture are what they need as they learn to manage these conditions — whether these are isolated episodes or the beginnings of chronic conditions. They’re often genetic, meaning no amount of maternal magic would have preempted them. (And no, your genes aren’t your fault, either.) Reflect on your choices to learn, absolutely — but not to beat yourself up. No point.

A cautionary reframe might help, too: To declare yourself a “failure” because your kids have mental health diagnoses is a form of shaming, as if such diagnoses are so awful that no good parent would ever let them happen and no child can succeed with them. Struggle is universal. How people deal with struggle is what determines health, happiness, success. Including yours, as a parent, as you struggle to meet your kids’ needs.

Readers’ thoughts:

∙ In 2000 — meaning pre-9/11 and all the ways it changed the world, ubiquitous cellphones, social media, pandemic, etc. — the American Psychological Association found that average kids were more anxious than kids in psychiatric treatment in the 1950s.

Think about that: The level of stress that warranted childhood psychiatric treatment in 1950 was less than the stress that everyone considered a “normal” part of being a kid in 2000. And things have only gotten a lot more stressful for kids since.

Honestly, you should be so proud of yourself for getting your kids treatment — that’s good parenting.

∙ So agree with Carolyn. You are not a Mom Failure, but a Mom Success. You got your kids help. If you replaced anxiety and depression as the diagnoses with kidney disease and heart murmur, would you consider yourself a failure? Mental health is one category of health concerns.

∙ I had to learn to navigate my own depression and anxiety AND my mother’s depression and anxiety about my depression and anxiety. Reassuring her ends up just being another layer of anxiety that I’m forced to manage. Try your best not to compound their burden with your own struggles. Therapy is good for everyone.

∙ Seeing my kids struggle is the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through, and I question myself constantly, but I feel better having put together a team of professionals like our pediatrician, therapist, psychiatrist and school support. You may want to reach out to friends because I bet more of them are in your same boat than you know. We’re living in difficult times.