Communicating with Kids About Financial Stress

In today’s economy families commonly need to cut back or make significant changes in how they live. Many parents find themselves wondering how to discuss these changes with their children. Experienced child psychologists know that once you’ve seen one family you’ve seen one family. For this reason, there is no counsel or set of  procedures that can be universally applied. However, it is possible to provide some general guidelines to address common questions.

Is it possible to hide our financial stress from our kids?

Probably not. Most of us tend to show our vulnerabilities more when we’re stressed; smokers tend to smoke more; people in troubled marriages argue more; people inclined towards impatience yell more, etc. A young child, sensing these changes, can become fairly upset and believe that he is at fault unless a parent provides some degree of clarity.

Should I lie to my child about what is going on in order to protect her?

We parents love our kids so much that it can make us crazy (i.e., we’re parent-lunatics—my post on this topic can be found here). So, the motivation to give false assurances is certainly understandable. However, it would generally be a mistake to assert something we do not believe. While doing this in the short run can seem humane, it can damage our credibility in the long run. And, as is the case in adult relationships, credibility can be a difficult thing to recapture. Moreover, kids can usually tell when something is wrong.

What should I tell my child about what is going on?

The younger or the more psychologically vulnerable the child, the more selective I might be in what I share. The older the child, and the more that he is thriving, the more open I might be. A central parental goal is to help my child to learn how to cope well with stress. It’s useful for kids, through the course of development, and in doses that they can handle, to be exposed to a wide variety of stresses so that they can learn how to cope effectively. Yet we parent-lunatics, because we can’t bear to see our kids hurting, sometimes deprive them of such valuable learning opportunities. Then, when they’re on their own, they may experience a diminished ability to respond to multiple kinds of stress and challenges (e.g., many freshmen arrive on college campuses with a compromised capacity to make effective decisions when stressed).

Can you give me an example of what I might say to a younger or a more vulnerable child regarding the significant financial pressures we’re facing?

Let’s say that you’ve been downsized and you’re going to have to move out of your house if you can’t land a new job in three months. I probably would not tell an eight year old that the mortgage is in danger. I would, however, tell that child about the job change, because Dad is going to be home more, or someone else might let it slip. It’s like sex education: you want as much information coming from you as possible. However, a child is like a bridge that’s still being built. How much weight he can handle changes over time (i.e., we don’t want to take a caravan of heavy trucks across a bridge that’s not completed if we can avoid it). If there are serious issues that would significantly stress or frighten a young child, I’m probably would not share that information until I have to.

What would you say to a healthy, older teenager about that same situation?

I might say to the teen, “I need to tell you something troubling. I got laid off. I’m not quite sure what’s going to happen and what kinds of changes we might have to go through together. I’m somewhat worried and sad about all of this, but I’m also confident in my abilities and our abilities as a family. I just thought that you’re old enough to hear about this straight up.” Such disclosures can promote closeness with a teen and affirm that you recognize her growing maturity. Then, there is the follow up opportunity to model how to cope well with stress. I can’t tell you the number of times, in my practice, that a teen has expressed surprise to learn that her parent was previously dumped by a significant other (this happens in the context of the teen being devastated by such a loss in his or her own life). We’re often not used to telling our kids about our vulnerabilities and failings, even though doing so can help them in many ways (for my humorous blog entry on this topic click here).

What do I do about the shame and guilt that I feel that I’m not able to give my kids as many things, and as many experiences, as I could in the past?

I’d suggest trying to redirect the mental energy you are putting into guilt and shame into thinking through the following formula: crisis = pain + opportunity; a related corollary is that as the pain rises so too usually does the opportunity. Maybe we can’t go to the shore this year. But, maybe we can spend more time hanging out at a neighborhood pool together. Maybe I can’t buy the top-of-the-line sneakers, but I can start to collaboratively consider whether chasing expensive corporate branding is good for us.

In closing I can share that our research makes it clear that one of the most important things our kids need from us is undivided and positive attention. The things we purchase sometimes own us more than we own them, so reduced questing for material possessions may actually  be offering us the opportunity to create deeper and better bonds with our kids. Required is love, creativity, flexibility, presence and persistence. Not required is money and Ralph Lauren (well, except in his family).

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