Children's Voice Mar/Apr 2009

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The Down to Earth Dad

Downturn Dads

By Patrick Mitchell

The depressed economy has not only let the air out of family bank accounts, dads' and moms' paychecks, and people's financial outlook on the near future; in fact, it has just plain depressed many parents. That, in turn, means more children than usual are vulnerable to feeling blue, since stress in families tends to roll downhill--from parents to their kids--if left unchecked.

Lawrence Balter PhD, professor in the department of applied psychology at New York University, spoke to me recently about the potential effects of the recession on children and families: "Financial stress can result in some anxiety, and in some people, more than anxiety; it can lead to depression and despondency." Then he told me something less obvious which, as a dad who had begun feeling a twinge of the financial blues himself, I really needed to hear: "One thing to watch out for is how your own distress, when there are financial problems, causes you to behave around your family. Feeling anxious, feeling blue, feeling down--that will effect your interaction with the people around you. If you're feeling blue, your mood may tend to be un-engaging…and you're not going to be much fun to be around." Yes, feeling down about the economy may be a very natural response to a bad situation, but at the same time, a parent mustn't overlook the impact that their blue financial mood may have on their kids, he said.

Child-and-family-serving pro-gram practitioners interact with a good number of struggling children and families on a regular basis. Now, however, with the changing economic landscape, some program directors and staffs are having to redefine who their at-risk population of parents and children is, due to rapidly changing income demographics. More than ever, families need help from caring professionals who can provide good information, including information on how to shield one's children from adult financial stressors.

"Parents want to do their best, but they need reliable information and support to do so," says Balter, who suggests that parents remind their children they are valued by spending ample time with them during times of stress, resisting the urge to withdraw. "If kids see their fathers being grouchy and wanting to be left alone, one of the potential trouble spots would be that [your children] are feeling rejected--that you're not interested in them--and this can make them feel insecure," he says. He suggests telling parents to talk openly with their children--within reason, and only providing age-appropriate information--about the family's financial situation.

How much should a parent tell their kids about their financial worries? The best plan is to tell the truth, giving only as much information as they need in order to understand how they'll be personally affected. "The way you convey the information has to be tailored to their age," says Balter. "Younger children sometimes look at family spending cutbacks as punishment. [Younger children] didn't do anything wrong, and now they feel they're being deprived of something they want. Older children will understand the fact that everybody has to tighten their belts." Elementary and middle school children "understand what's going on. They might start to wonder, 'What's going to happen to me?' 'Are we going to have to move?' 'Are my parents going to sell the house?' Older teenagers might be asked to pitch in a little bit…perhaps they can pick up a part-time job. It depends on how dire the circumstances are. You don't want to upset the kids needlessly; it's not their responsibility to support the family," says Balter. "Let the children know what steps you're taking to remedy what the problems are, and keep them apprised of activities as you try to piece together solutions to the problem."

And above all, notes Balter, parents need to remember this: "Those are your [financial] problems and you need to deal with them as best you can." Otherwise, he cautions, "Your children might inherit your stress."

A regular contributor to Children's Voice, Patrick Mitchell publishes a monthly newsletter, The Down to Earth Dad, from Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, and facilitates the Dads Matter!™ Project for early childhood programs, schools, and child- and family-serving organizations. He conducts keynote addresses, workshops, and inservice and preservice trainings. To reserve Patrick Mitchell for speaking engagements, or to implement the Dads Matter!™ Project for your families and community partners, call him toll-free at 877/282-DADS, or e-mail him at patrick@downtoearthdad.org. Website: www.DownToEarthDad.org.

To comment on this story, e-mail voice@cwla.org.


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