Whether you’re a brand-new parent, supporting a grown child, or anywhere in between, parenting can be complicated. Raising a child can be a source of great joy and fulfillment, but it’s often stressful as well. For some people, parenting can also be closely connected to mental health symptoms.
Almost every parent experiences stress and other negative emotions around parenting from time to time. However, if you think that issues related to parenting are causing you to experience symptoms of anxiety, depression, or other mental health concerns on a regular basis, you may want to seek support from a therapist.
How common are mental health challenges related to parenting?
Currently, there is relatively little research on how parenting affects the long-term mental health of parents.
However, there is extensive research showing that perinatal mental health issues – that is, mental health issues that occur during pregnancy or shortly after a baby’s birth--are quite common for both mothers and fathers. For example, about 13% of mothers worldwide experience some form of mental health challenge related to parenting, most often postpartum depression.
Additionally, the National Institute of Mental Health notes that 18.9% of all adults in the United States have been diagnosed with some kind of mental illness. Accordingly, it’s likely that many people who become parents are already dealing with mental health challenges, which the increased stresses of parenting might make more difficult.
What are some different kinds of mental health challenges relating to parenting?
Parenting is different for everyone, so there is no one set of symptoms or circumstances related to parenting challenges.
That said, some common mental health challenges that might come up in connection to parenting include:
- Perinatal mental health challenges: It’s especially common for both mothers and fathers to experience mental health difficulties during the perinatal period, which starts during pregnancy and extends through the first several months after the baby is born.
- Anxiety or worry: You may be preoccupied with worry or experience anxiety about caring for your child, managing a more complicated household, or balancing all of life’s demands.
- Depression: The new stresses (and chemical changes) of becoming a parent or parenting a growing child can lead to sadness, hopelessness, lethargy, and other symptoms of depression.
- Work stress: Figuring out how to balance your career with the demands of parenting can be uniquely stressful.
- Family issues: Becoming a parent might lead to family tensions with your family of origin, or expanding your own nuclear family can create new dynamics (for example, sibling conflicts) that are difficult to manage.
- Issues with sex or intimate relationships: Parenting can be a significant source of stress for you and your partner(s). Sometimes, it can lead to challenges with your sex life or in your relationship more generally. If you’re a single parent, challenges with parenting can also cause stress in your intimate relationships.
- Challenges around identity and life transitions: Parenting can have a big impact on your personal identity and how you view your life, whether you’re parenting a new baby or adjusting to an empty nest. These transitions are a major part of parenting and can often be quite challenging, particularly for women who are balancing social expectations of motherhood with individual identity.
- Issues related to infertility and miscarriage: Whether you already have a child or are trying for your first, infertility and miscarriage can make the process of becoming a parent painful and stressful.
- Physical symptoms: Stress often comes with physical symptoms including muscle tension, headaches, and digestive troubles. You might find that these symptoms correspond to challenges related to parenting.
What to do if you’re experiencing mental health challenges related to parenting
If you’re dealing with any of the issues described here, you have a number of options:
- Therapy: Therapy can be a helpful way to work on understanding the challenges you’re experiencing as parent and develop strategies for dealing with any related mental health symptoms. You might seek treatment on your own, with a partner, or with additional members of your family. (More tips on finding a therapist below.)
- Check-ups: Especially during the perinatal period, mental health challenges can be closely tied to physiological changes. Be sure you visit your physician to rule out any underlying medical issues and, if necessary, get support around medication.
- Support groups: Finding a support group in your area can help you connect with other parents experiencing similar challenges, and having a sense of community can make these issues much more manageable. This may be especially helpful if you’re dealing with a specific mental health diagnosis or if your child has special needs. You can find support groups through Parents Anonymous, by searching the internet for groups in your area, or by getting recommendations from your child’s pediatrician.
- Mindfulness: You might find it helpful to experiment with meditation or other mindfulness practices through classes or apps. Studies have shown that these practices can help reduce the symptoms of stress and anxiety that are often related to parenting challenges.
- Stay active: Some studies show that regular physical activity can decrease symptoms of anxiety, which often go along with parenting challenges.
- Pursue creative projects or hobbies: Visual or performing arts, creative writing, sports, volunteering, and many other pursuits can all be helpful ways to diffuse your body’s stress response and make your daily life more fulfilling. Keeping up with activities outside of your home and family can also help you remember that parenting is just one part of your identity – it doesn’t have to be your whole life.
- Hotlines: If you’re having thoughts of suicide or need immediate support, you can always call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.
Best therapy types for parenting issues
A number of different kinds of psychotherapy may be helpful for issues related to parenting.
Depending on the nature of your challenges, you might want to work with a therapist individually, or you might want to attend sessions with a partner and/or your children or other family members.
Try exploring the following varieties of psychotherapy and see which you think might be good fits for your specific parenting issues:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
- Mindfulness Practices
- Family Systems Therapy
- Holistic Therapy
- Couples Counseling
- Child-Parent Psychotherapy
- Psychodynamic Therapy
What should I look for in a therapist for parenting issues?
You’ll want to make sure that your therapist is qualified to treat parenting issues, as well as any specific related mental health problems you may be experiencing. This will usually involve:
- Advanced education in a field related to mental health, such as psychiatry, psychology, or social work;
- Licensure to practice in the state where you live;
- Additional training and/or experience in treating parenting issues specifically, along with previously experience with any mental health conditions you want to address. For example, if you’re experiencing postpartum depression, you’ll want to work with a therapist who has a background treating that specific condition.
Finally, as with any therapy, it’s important to make sure that your therapist is a good fit for your unique needs. Be sure to evaluate the following in your initial calls with therapists:
- How will you pay for therapy? Does the therapist take your insurance or otherwise offer rates that will work with your budget?
- When and where will you attend sessions? Does the therapist offer treatment at a location that is convenient for you and at times that work with your schedule?
- Most importantly, do you feel comfortable talking to this therapist and sense that you have the potential to develop a therapeutic alliance?