It seems there is hardly any good news nowadays. The headlines and news reports continue to bring the darkest possible angle on the state of affairs to my breakfast counter. The economic forecast is worsening, unemployment is skyrocketing and is expected to soon be at its highest point in over twenty years. I feel fortunate to be able to turn off the television and skim the newspaper for stories about kittens rescued from treetops. My children however, cannot avoid me or my emotions. If I let my worrying spill over, my children will feel anxious and maybe even afraid. They have no control over family income or employment decisions so it is important to communicate with them in a way that is realistic and reassuring.
It has become evident that my children and the children I treat in my practice are feeling the anxiety that the current economic downturn is generating without ever reading a newspaper or watching the news. They are absorbing their parent's anxiety. I have always encouraged my children to read the paper so they could stay informed, but now I'm not so sure that's a great idea. I believe it could still be beneficial if I help them understand the news within the proper context. Introducing the articles about the economy while pointing out evidence for optimism, may turn the experience into an opportunity to practice functional thinking strategies.
Part of a parent's job is to prepare children to become effective adult citizens. That means being a good role model, educating them, and protecting them when they need it, and teaching them through example how to manage emotions. Children are very perceptive. Babies can sense tension in an emotionally charged room even without physical contact with an adult. Some children develop anxiety issues when exposed to marital discord and divorce. Clearly it is a parent's job to moderate anxiety that comes into the household so children are appropriately protected from stress that is beyond their ability to handle it. On the other hand, it is not helpful to protect children from reality and solve all their problems. A balance must be struck between overprotection and unregulated, toxic stress.
A combination of honesty and optimism is a useful approach when discussing economic and financial hardships. Introducing a difficult subject openly with a sense of hopefulness, activates a child's sense of control over his or her environment. Loss of control creates fear and in some cases panic.
In my practice, I have seen an increase in the number of families who are experiencing financial problems related to unemployment and unmanageable mortgage payments. Many have been forced to downsize and accept lower wages if they are able to find another job. Children in these homes are becoming more acutely aware of the family's struggles as the recession extends. I have heard children express worries verbally and demonstrate them non-verbally through regressed behavior such as bed-wetting and aggression.
The driving emotion underlying anger is frequently anxiety and without the cognitive ability to work out a solution, many act out. Children may also act out to divert attention away from stressful situations, marital discord and family problems. It is not just children who act out. Adults do also, but it may take the form of substance abuse or another impulse control disorder.
One possible solution for anxiety is to generate a "To Do List" not a "What If List".
Children naturally make the latter, so parents must help them focus on the things they have control over. For example, "Times are hard for everyone, but not everyone ends up homeless. As your parent it is my job to worry about making sure you have a safe place to live. Your job is to do your best at school and have fun with your friends. I will see to it that we get through these tough times." Drawing on our strengths and facing problems directly and creatively helps reduce stress and illness, physical and mental. It leads to control over our environment and resilience. It is important to let children know that these tough times will someday be the past we look back on with strength and confidence even though now that seems like a distant tomorrow. .