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Harvard Commentaries
Harvard Commentaries
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

A Parent's Life A Parent's Life

Financial Stress Affects Kids, Too

August 12, 2013

By Claire McCarthy

Boston Children's Hospital

The economy has been recovering slowly. But many people remain out of work. Or if they have landed a new job, there’s a good chance that it pays less than their last job. 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 surveys show that many children and teens worry about family financial difficulties. In fact, stress and worry often have a bigger effect on kids than parents realize.

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Why Kids Are Stressed

  • Ambient stress affects kids. This is the biggest reason, I think. We may believe that we are keeping our worries from our children, but they pick up on them. They notice even small changes in our behavior. Even if they don't hear the details of hushed conversations, they know that they are happening. Parents are the foundation of a child's universe, and when a parent is upset or stressed, it affects that universe.
  • Financial hardships can change a child's life and routines. Many families need to cut back on the things they used to do, such as eating out, taking vacations or splurging on holiday gifts. One parent may be out of work. A family may be losing a house to foreclosure. Changes can be unsettling for children. Younger children especially rely on their routines for comfort and stability.
  • When parents are pinching pennies, kids can't always get what they want. Especially around holiday times, this can lead to upset. Older kids often have more expensive tastes, so cutting back can lead to anger and conflict.

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Signs of Stress

Signs of stress vary from the obvious to the subtle. Children who are stressed may:

  • Be more moody than usual
  • Show less interest in activities they usually enjoy
  • Eat less or more
  • Sleep less or more
  • Have school problems, such as falling grades or behavioral difficulties
  • Complain of aches and pains, especially headaches and stomachaches, that don't seem to have a medical explanation. (It's important to get any complaint checked out, though, before you attribute it to stress.)

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What Parents Can Do

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!)

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.

  • Reassure children that they will be taken care of, no matter what. They will have a place to live and enough to eat, and you will be with them. Life may be different, but some things won't change. This may be obvious to you, but it's worth stating the obvious sometimes.
  • Watch for signs of stress in your child. Talk to your child's doctor if your efforts to reassure him or her aren't helping.
  • Include your children in coming up with ideas to save money. For example, would they enjoy homemade pizza night instead of going out to a restaurant? How about having breakfast for dinner? Have them think of inexpensive entertainment ideas, like family movie night with a DVD and popcorn, game night, or having friends over for a potluck dinner. Talk about gifts you might make rather than buy. Be upbeat, with an emphasis on fun and togetherness.

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.

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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.

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