A byproduct of this greater acceptance and openness, however, has been more parents sharing their children’s mental health problems in public online forums, especially as the pandemic has increased children’s mental health concerns amid ongoing financial hardship, social isolation and distance learning. Many of the same benefits can occur, such as parents getting support, feeling less alone and spreading information about treatment options. Yet the most important person in the equation seems to be forgotten: the child.
Although parents’ intentions are good, the outcome risks damage to the parent-child relationship, which is one of the strongest pillars of childhood mental health.
Children have a right to privacy, and parents should protect it. Therapy relationships are built on the basic premise that all information shared will be kept strictly confidential, barring imminent danger or child abuse. Without it, people would be reluctant to share their worries, ruminations and most distressing thoughts or behaviors. Children and teenagers are not immune from this need for confidentiality, especially from their parents.
Healthy parent-child relationships are built on trust. Young children tend to trust their parents inherently. As they grow into the tween and teenage years, they seek greater independence, question more and have greater need for personal space and privacy. Trust implies that someone is considerate of your needs and respectful of your boundaries. If parents share private information without permission, they risk breaking their child’s trust and hurting their relationship. Break your child’s privacy now, and they may be less likely to share difficult things with you later. I see this happen all the time.
Children’s wishes for privacy may not always align with a parent’s needs. When a parent posts about their child’s mood disorder to get parenting advice or decrease stigma, they are thinking of their needs and goals as a parent, but not their child’s needs and right to keep that private. Should an adolescent wish to share their diagnosis or personal struggle with their friends, this should be left up to them.
Children learn consent by having been offered it. Having the right to say “no” is vital to psychological well-being. Seeking our children’s permission to post a photo of them online or allowing them to decide whether they will give hugs to a grandparent are fundamentally similar. They are acknowledgments of the children’s right as individuals to think for themselves and decide what is best for them. Offering them such personal rights now sets a road map for how they will think about themselves and advocate for their own rights and dignities in future relationships. Simply put, ask before posting about your child, and what you post should not be their mental health information.
Parental modeling matters. If it is inappropriate for a child to post “my mom was so anxious she drank a bottle of wine last night,” then a mother should think twice before writing about her son’s dysregulated meltdown from the night before or the latest change to his psychotropic medication. That information may feel just as private to a child or teen, and they could feel uncomfortable, embarrassed or hurt that it was shared.
Parents’ online behavior influences what kids post as when they get older and start using social media. Teens may not see the problem with posting pictures of friends without permission or leaking details of a friend’s recent breakup, if parents have been loose with their own boundaries online. Respect a child’s privacy and they will be more likely to honor the same for others.
Others can use the information in ways that are hurtful. Although fighting stigma is a noble goal, the reality is that stigma persists. A child’s private information could be used against them by other parents or children, or even potential future employers. Although it’s illegal for an employer to discriminate against someone because of mental illness, information in the public domain, including social media posts, is often used to inform hiring decisions. And once information is placed on the Internet, it is nearly impossible to remove. Be sure the things that you post about yourself and your children are things you (and they) will want to remain there one year, five years and 25 years from now.
Social media has drastically changed the landscape and norms for communication and privacy. Adults are adjusting to this change right along with our kids, and we make mistakes just like they do. When life gets hard, what’s a parent to do? Take a breath and go “old school” when venting about our kids’ difficulties and mental health concerns. Call a trusted friend or reach out to your family’s pediatrician or therapist. We all need more direct person-to-person connection these days, anyway. It’s good for our mental health.
Annalise Caron (@AnnaliseC_PhD) is a clinical psychologist and director of CBT Westport, a private psychology practice in Westport, Conn. In addition, she is half of the Parenting Pair, an initiative dedicated to creating online parenting resources for science-informed, compassionate and connected parenting.