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Family Journal

Helping children manage stress in a tough economy

Dear Mr. Morton,

I’m working two jobs, my husband’s laid off, the bills are piling up, and our three young children are feeling the stress. How can we ease their worries?

Dear Parent,

You’re not alone. Even though our economy is showing signs of improving, there are many people who are now seeking help from food banks who were actual donors a few years back! Others who worked a steady 40-hour week with overtime now are laid off or must survive on 32 hours — with no benefits. There are more children on free or reduced school lunches and increasing numbers of kids without health coverage.

As the American family stares at the fiscal cliff, our uncertain economy and the financial strain it places on them is underestimated, and children are not immune to it. They sense the increased stress in their parents and hear and read about it in the news.

The best time for you and your husband to discuss his job loss, your working double time, and the bill pile-up isn’t during dinner. Discuss your financial difficulties quietly after the kids are asleep. Children need “predictableness” in times of family stress, so try and keep your discipline and expectations of them positive and consistent, and the household routine as unwavering as possible.

Keep an eye out for changes in your children’s behavior or emotions. When families undergo any number of extended struggles, children may develop sleep difficulties, headaches or stomachaches, even have unexplained fears or anxiety that may take the form of clinging behaviors.

If they have questions about the extra job you had to take on, or why dad was laid off, answer their questions honestly and calmly in an age-appropriate manner. Don’t hide the truth from them. Tell them the reasons why the family adjustments are necessary, for children’s fear of the unknown will frighten them more than the truth. If the tight family budget means they can’t get a puppy for Christmas, so be it. But always reassure them that the family will be OK, which it most likely will be, for everything in life is cyclical and that goes for the financial markets, too.

Low-income families fare worse. Experts have studied government policies and legislation that have affected below-medium income families. The lack of a national housing policy, affordable housing for families with children, health and medical care, the lack of mental health services, and the difficult-to-access healthcare for the rural poor are problems that grow in a recession. Economic downturns, unemployment, and under-employment indirectly affect childcare, the increased work expectations of parents, pre-kindergarten and Head Start programs, as well as the education of immigrant children. The economic insecurities hit middle class families during the recession, but are magnified among low-income families who increasingly live on credit.

Interestingly, sociologists have compared U.S. policies for children and families to those of selected major industrialized countries. In a 2004 study by the Annie E. Casey, Ford, and Rockefeller Foundations, it was reported that a large number of American families are currently faring poorly in their struggle to provide for themselves. Low-income and poor families were found to contain one-third of all of the children in American working families. Low-wage jobs without benefits mean that families at or below the poverty line live a precarious existence.

Robert Morton has retired from his positions of school psychologist and adjunct professor in the School Of Leadership and Policy Studies at Bowling Green State University. Contact him at robertmorton359@gmail.com.

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