Children worrying about recession, too

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 1, 2009

By Kathy Chaffin
It’s not just adults feeling the pressures of hard economic times. Local counselors say children are worrying, too.
“Children are like huge radar antennae,” says Jay Boulter, who counsels whole families as well as individual children and adults in his Salisbury practice. “They absorb the mental state of the adults around them, so when the adults are anxious, short-tempered, arguing, fighting, that impacts the child.
“Very often, they may not even know why there is this feeling of anxiety, tension and even depression in the family.”
Phyllis Post of Salisbury, a professor in the counseling department at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, says children may not be able to express what they feel when parents experience anxiety and stress, “but they do feel dis-ease in the family.”
Post, who also counsels children ages 3 to 9 one night a week at United Family Services in Concord, says it’s important for parents to pay attention to their children to see if they’re showing any symptoms of stress or anxiety and if they are, to respond appropriately.
Stress or anxiety in children can show up in different ways. “They might have some physical symptoms like stomachaches or headaches,” she says. “If they’re really feeling uncomfortable, there might be a change in their interest in school.
“There might be a change in their behavior with other children or with their academic work. Parents know their children very well … and if they notice a change in their children, they just need to be sensitive to it.”
Boulter says stress and anxiety manifest in children ages 5 to 6 as oppositional behaviors such as putting their hands on their hips and saying no. They also tend to daydream more, he says.
“With adolescents,” he says, “very often, they’ll do what adolescents do, which is retreat into their own world or into their peers when things aren’t comfortable at home.”
In counseling families or parents, Boulter says he encourages those who are suffering from stress and/or anxiety to acknowledge this to their children without sharing all the details. He recommends saying something like, “I’m feeling uptight or I’m feeling anxious or I might be a little more snappy than usual, but it has nothing to do with you.”
Jim Mallinson, who counsels adolescents in his private practice in Salisbury, agrees that parents should be up-front with children about financial struggles, but should avoid verbalizing the worst scenarios.
“If you’re afraid you’re losing your home,” he says, “don’t say, ‘We’re going to lose our home’ in front of the kids. That’s really scary.”
Post encourages parents to communicate basic facts about the family’s finances “using very simple language and not being overly dramatic about it.”
For families who do lose their homes to foreclosure, Mallinson says, the children need constant reassurance. Parents should share their feelings about the experience, he says, while saying something like, “The most important thing is that we are family, and we are going to stay together.”
Post says children don’t need to hear all the details of layoffs or foreclosures. “The child just needs to be told that Dad has lost his job or Mom has lost her job,” she says, “and that they will take care of them as best they can and that they’ll always be there to help them out.
“The greatest gift parents can give to their children is to listen to them and accept them as they are and demonstrate understanding and respect.”
Mallinson says several of his young clients have talked to him about not being able to do things because of family financial problems.
He’s even had a couple youths referred to him for mental health assessments for trying to sell drugs to buy things their family couldn’t afford. “They’ll do this to survive,” he says, or to buy something, such as a $200 pair of tennis shoes that most parents can’t afford even when there’s not a recession going on.
Boulter says he has counseled families after parents have lost jobs. Some companies offer counseling through employee assistance programs for a certain period of time after layoffs occur, he says.
Parents fearful of losing their jobs can also impact their children. In some cases, Boulter says, the fear of being laid off can actually be worse than the reality.
“What happens is people tend to fill in the blanks when they don’t know what’s happening,” he says. “Some families tend to have a very pessimistic attitude that it’s going to be horrible and terrible and catastrophic, and so not knowing, some people will create an even worse scenario.”
Mallinson says it sometimes help to involve children in developing a family budget. “Ask them for their input,” he says. “If they have that, they’ll feel valued.”
Children may have ideas for saving money that parents haven’t thought of, he says.
Mallinson says there are ways families can enjoy time together without spending money.
“Do things that are free,” he says. “It doesn’t take much to take a walk around the park. Going to the library is a wonderful resource …
“Do it together. Reassure everybody that, ‘We’re just going to have some fun.’ ”
Mallinson says the only expense on these type of activities is the cost of the gas.
Boulter suggests that parents sit down with their children and plan a family fun time for every two weeks. “They can simply have a movie night in and eat pizza,” he says. “They can go bowling on the nights when there’s reduced bowling (fees) or roller skating.
Camping is also a fun family activity in warm weather. “With younger children,” Boulter says, “it’s fun to just get out a bunch of blankets and sheets and cover the dining room furniture and have your own little camp-out picnic inside.”
Board games are another family fun activity, he says.
Boulter says one positive result of the current economic difficulties is that families are spending more time together.
“I’m rather optimistic,” he says. “I think that what I’m beginning to see, and other people in my profession who focus on families, is that we for a long time became somewhat disintegrated. We were off going to our different activities.
“We were spending a lot of time driving one child to this activity and another child to that activity, and as a result of what’s happening now, I see a lot of families coming back and doing simple things together. I think that’s going to have a long-term benefit with children as they become adults. I think they will return to recognizing what an incredible resource families are.”
Boulter also encourages parents and children to talk to elderly family members or people in the community about hard times in the past.
“Ask them, ‘How did you survive?’ ” he says. ” ‘How did you get through those difficult times?’ and use that wisdom.”
Contact Kathy Chaffin at 704-797-4249.