Financial Stress Affects Kids, Too
November 16, 2009
By Claire McCarthy, M.D.
The past year has been a tough one when it comes to the economy. And while the experts say things are beginning to turn around, unemployment now tops 10%. It may take a while before the situation gets better for many families.
We tend to think of adults when we think of financial stress. But in the American Psychological Association's annual Stress in America survey, 30% of the 1,206 children ages 8 to 17 who participated worried about family financial difficulties. In fact, stress and worry are having a bigger effect on kids than parents realize.
Signs of stress vary from the obvious to the subtle. Children who are stressed may:
First and foremost, be aware that children see, hear and understand more than you realize. This means that if you need to have a really tough financial discussion, especially one that may be emotional, have it when the children aren't home. Waiting until they are asleep may not do the trick. (We can all remember overhearing our parents' conversations when they thought we were asleep!) And be careful with offhand comments, such as, "We'll fix the gutters next year if we still have the house." Children can be very concrete, and might immediately think that you are losing the house.
It's important, though, to include children in some discussions. Be honest. Give them the facts in simple terms. Let them know that there is less money than there used to be, so you will be making changes in what you buy and what you do.
But herein lies the crucial part: It's all in how you say it, and how you live it. Remember that parents are the foundation of their children's universe. So try to be positive.
I don't mean to minimize the stress and hardship of a financial downturn; it can be extremely difficult. But it's always important to remember that having your family is having an abundance of riches. If your family becomes closer and more cohesive in the process of coping with financial changes, you will have truly spun straw into gold.
Claire McCarthy, M.D., is an assistant professor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, an attending physician at Children's Hospital of Boston, and medical director of the Martha Eliot Health Center, a neighborhood health service of Children's Hospital. She is a senior medical editor for Harvard Health Publications.