Archive for November 12th, 2008

Economic Anxiety and Kids

Sharon November 12th, 2008

I’m guessing there are a lot more nervous, stressed out kids out there than there were last year.  There’s some evidence that this is true as well, including a study of teenagers that showed that 70% were worried about a short term, harsh impact on their families.    Well, there are a lot more unemployed parents, a lot more parents worrying that they may not be able to send the kid to college or pay for needed medical treatments.  If you work on Wall Street, in the Auto Industry, in the Insurance Industry, for Circuit City or even the US Postal Service (reporting its first ever layoffs), you may be wondering whether you are getting the axe before Christmas or after it.  There’s a lot of fear out there.  And scared parents mean scared kids.

This, I think, is an inevitability even if you are the best parent on the planet - and most of us aren’t.  When we’re worried, we’re snappish or sad.  Our kids see that, and being children, being magical thinking little egotists who believe that they organize and control their world, they fear/suspect that your misery is their fault.  And being creatures of routine, shifts in their normal are tough on them too - they can adapt, of course, and do to far more difficult situations than most of us face at the moment, but all this stuff is tough on them. 

It gets tougher when parents take their stress out on each other or their kids.  There are intermittent reports of rising rates of domestic violence, and there’s fairly good evidence that divorce rates are going up.  Adults are angry and afraid, and they take out on one another and their kids.  I do hope the angry and scared adults out there who need it will try to find some help from a family member, a professional, whatever resources they need.  One place you might look for wiser and more useful counsel than my own would be

I’m no therapist, and I don’t claim to have a lot of good answers on this subject. I did grow up in a household where chronic boom and bust cycles undermined stabilities and where my father’s actions and mood were dictated by our economic situation, so I have quite visceral memories of how hard this can be on children, and some determination to insulate my own kids.  This is easier said than done, of course, since I’m just as prone (maybe more) to becoming grumpy and irritable when I’m worried as anyone else.

My only good advice, other than doing what is necessary to come together rather than apart when possible, and not hitting anyone, ever, is that kids get a chance to feel like they have some power in the situation.  I may be inordinately biased in favor of usefulness as a hedge against stress and anxiety, and I have not had this vetted by any real professional, so take it for what it is worth - I think we should tell the (moderated and age appropriate) truth to our kids, and let them participate in dealing with whatever crisis we’re facing (again, moderately and appropriately).  Reading the article above, I suspect the level of participation I’d permit might be higher than most parents - I think I’d let a child sell their ipod to help the family - maybe it won’t be worth the effort, but if you could get some money for it, I don’t think that’s a terrible idea.  Nor is allowing older kids to help out financially, even if their aid is small.

Now I want to be clear about what “moderate and appropriate” actually means.  I don’t think kids need to know all the bad stuff - all the things you are afraid of, all the darker scenarios that I write about.  My kids don’t.  Developmentally speaking, my oldest son is not-quite seven (Eli is older but because of his disabilities, runs younger) - and I think it is appropriate that he understand that we’re spending less money on the holidays, that we’re going to be making more donations because more people are hungry, and that we might be facing hard times that last a while, I don’t think he needs all the dark details.  For older kids, who watch tv or read the papers and who see their friends moving away or suffering, more information is needed.  In the case of older kids, it may be useful to be able to offer them contingency plans that they can’t think of themselves - observing, for example, that if we have to move, we could go stay with Grandma might actually relieve darker fears about living in a car or going hungry.  Kids often don’t realize that there are safety nets out there, so the options seem even starker to them than to us.

But all kids, from toddlers on up, I think respond gracefully to the idea that they are needed and essential. In fact, I often wonder if some of the deepest troubles kids face, especially in adolescence is that they are offered so few outlets for their talents.  Does this mean that your six year old should drop out of first grade to support the family?  Of course not.  But I think it is reasonable to ask teenagers, already of an age to work, to either contribute some of their earnings to the family if it is needed, or to defray more of their own expenses.  It is reasonable to call on pre-working age children to help watch younger sisters and brothers, or to do more chores (age appropriate and reasonable, of course) to enable their parents to spend time job hunting or earning supplemental income. 

Even toddlers can be told “we’re all working together in the garden so that we can have fresh vegetables all winter.”  It is amazing how proud children of all ages are to be doing meaningful work (even when you have to sneak back and do it over after the toddlers do it ;-) ).  The idea that your family is a unit, working together to survive and thrive, even in the face of adversity is a narrative that kids can understand and draw strength from. 

Kids can be expected to give up college if it is truly necessary - but not without a lot of help shifting their dreams.  Many American kids have grown up thinking that college was de rigeur, and absolutely necessary part of young adulthood.  You and they may not be able to pay for it - but we adults are responsible for helping kids shift their dreams, and readjust to realities.  That is, if we’ve spent their childhoods telling them that college is expected and necessary, we should expect to spend a lot of time helping them find a way to either save for college later or to find new dreams and expectations. 

And the same goes for all the trappings of middle class comfort.  We are going to find as we get less wealthy that we’ve been responsible for creating our kids’ expectations - expectations that many of us will no longer be able to fulfill.  We’ve been the ones telling them that a normal existence means new clothes every fall and birthday, a cell phone, shopping as a hobby, buying what you want at the grocery store.  We’re going to need not to just to tell them that those things have to shift, but to work on making sure that they understand that those shifts aren’t necessarily bad.

And that, I think is the most important thing.  Kids live by the stories they were told. Most mainstream American kids have learned that affluence is incredibly important, that their future was about money, and that security comes in the form of wealth.  We can’t insulate them from all the hardships that are probably coming their way, but what we can do is shift the stories they learn - they can learn that being poor is normal, and that it doesn’t have to prevent people from being happy.   They can learn that their family unit, extended or nuclear is working together in the face of difficulties.  They can understand their participation in that project as part of what is holding your family together and enabling you to keep going.  They can draw strength and pride from those experiences, from their sacrifices and their participation, even if you are scared and angry, even if they are sometimes.  But we have to start telling different stories, and thinking up new roles for our kids right now, lest the old ones drag them down.