For the past year, the unfolding global financial crisis has brought a daily barrage of sobering news: millions of workers out of jobs, companies going under or begging for bailouts, plummeting stock prices and vanishing retirement funds. On some level, the downturn has affected all of us. Whether you're suddenly unemployed or are scouring your family budget for ways to rein in expenses, it's a stressful time. This is also true for children, but, unlike most adults, kids don't always have the skills or the understanding to deal with stress in healthy ways.
Steven E. Curtis, a child clinical psychologist based on Bainbridge Island and author of the book Understanding Your Child's Puzzling Behavior: A Guide for Parents of Children with Behavioral, Social and Learning Challenges, encourages parents to recognize that, while overall, children are remarkably resilient, issues like the current recession do affect kids. "When parents are worried," Curtis says, "kids pick it up like sponges."
A parent-teacher association on Bainbridge Island recently invited Curtis to share some tips for parents to help kids cope with the trying times. Here are some highlights of his talk about the emotional effects the financial crisis may have on kids.
• Be Aware – Unless events directly alter children's lives, many parents may assume their children are not influenced by negative news. Children do, however, experience stress. Curtis encourages parents to observe their children, keeping an eye out for anything that seems different in their behavior.
• Hang Out with Your Kid – Between school and extra-curricular activities, kids' lives tend to be fairly structured. Sometimes just having down time with your child and doing nothing is a good way to get her to open up about anything that might be bothering her.
• Talk to Your Kids – Parents sometimes have a tendency to hide problems or big issues from their children, but it's better that kids hear it from mom and dad, rather than from a neighbor, TV or the radio. Don't be afraid to be honest with your children – while their ages may influence the amount of detail you share, it's important to be open about the things that worry you. "If you don't talk to them," Curtis says, "they'll often make the issue worse."
• Be There and Be a Good Listener – Let your kids know that you are available for them and are willing to listen when they need you. Many parents try to fix their children's problems right away, but that's not always possible. "It's important to just listen and acknowledge what they are feeling," says Curtis, "and not try to fix everything immediately."
• Minimize Any Change to a Child's Routine – If the financial downtown has hit your family hard – if you have lost, or fear you might lose, your job or your house – do your best to keep as much consistency as possible. If you have to move, try to keep your kid in the same school. If you have to relocate to some place new, try to keep some other aspect of your child's life consistent for his sense of security and comfort.
• Teach Stress Management – People aren't born knowing how to manage stress. These are learned skills. They need to be taught. Help your children change the way they talk about themselves from negative to positive; help them work through any performance anxiety by helping them learn to relax, through exercise and through talking about their feelings.
• Emphasize Resilience – Throughout history, humanity has overcome a lot of problems. We will bounce back this time, too. As Helen Keller once wrote; "Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it." Tough times are opportunities to develop strength of character.
• Teach Children Success Principles – It's important to teach your children to stick with activities or situations, even when it gets tough. Children need to learn to complete tasks, so they can develop an appreciation for following through and finishing a job.
• Put Things in Perspective – Help your children know that they aren't alone. People have challenges everywhere, and while kids' problems are important, they are not the only ones struggling.
• Look for the Good – Help your kids look for the positive in any given situation, instead of focusing on the worst-case scenario. Kids can be very dramatic and sometimes they need a good reminder that life isn't all bad.
• Reach Out – By reaching out to others – perhaps a neighbor in need or a local food bank – children can learn to overcome their own feelings of fear and aloneness, while also putting things in perspective.
• Focus on Small Things – Kids need to adjust their goals, just like adults. Helping them to focus on small steps and successes can help them to stop worrying about large failures or events out of their control.
Curtis encourages parents to let their kids "tell the end of the story." Kids, as a rule, believe anything can happen – it's good to encourage them to focus on the positive things that may come out of a seemingly bad situation.
While these trying economic times may seem overwhelmingly difficult, challenging times are nothing new. Every generation has had to deal with problems beyond their control. While bringing resolution to the financial crisis is important, it is equally important for families to use this time as an opportunity to build children's reliance and ability to deal with adversity, since they will experience situations throughout their lives that cause them stress. "Throughout time, people have had hurdles to overcome," Curtis says. "It's important for kids to learn how to stay positive and keep moving forward."
Seems like good advice for all of us.
For more information, see Curtis' Web site at www.lifespanps.com.
Dana Thompson is a Bainbridge Island-based freelance writer and mother of two.