With layoffs happening around the country, and national and international economic uncertainty, many families have been forced to tighten their belts.
Adding to the challenge for parents, though, is how to explain the family financial crunch to their children in a way that is honest yet reassuring.
Thomas Young, chief operating officer at the Children's Home Society of Idaho in Boise, advises parents to keep the conversation simple, sticking to the basics and offering lots of reassurance.
"A child may ask, 'Are we going broke?' Well, no, you're not going broke, but you may have to make some changes," Young said. "Give them simple answers they'll understand."
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No matter what age the children may be, honesty is still the best policy when talking about a difficult subject.
"If you're laid off, and the lifestyle you've been enjoying is being modified, I don't think there's anything wrong with saying to your kids, 'Daddy just got laid off from his job, and until he finds another one, we're going to be cutting back a bit,'" said Paula Sharp, a licensed clinical social worker with A Better Day Counseling in Boise. "Label what the problem is, offer reassurance for the future, and what you're going to be doing in the meantime.
"Young kids have a hard time with the concept of time," Sharp added. "They may think what is happening in this moment is going to happen for ever. You need to remind them you're hoping for things to change for the better in the future."
Even if your family isn't struggling, your children may see other families or friends experiencing challenges and ask why.
"They may see kids losing their houses, being forced to move and change schools. That is often a child's first association with loss - when a friend moves away," Young said. "Children need to be reminded that a family is not a house. A family is us."
One piece of advice: Get the family together.
"I recommend to my clients to have a family council meeting where they all sit down at the table and discuss what's going on in the family," said Jacalyn Ramsey, a licensed professional counselor with Advance Counseling Center in Boise, specializing in children, adolescents, adults and couples.
One of the older children can act as facilitator, so the communication is not just coming from the parents all the time, Ramsey said.
"Children like being an active part of the family in problem solving and contributing in the process," Ramsey said. "Even though they're children, they still have thoughts and emotions and needs. Parents can help them by communicating with them."
Above all, the constant message parents need to send their children is: "Our family is OK."
"What's really important is the fact that we're a family, we're here for each other, we love each other," Sharp said. "What's really important in life are our relationships. The rest of it is really icing."
SETTING THE APPROPRIATE TONE
-- Young children need assurance and security. "Keep in mind that it's important to tailor what you say to your children according to how old they are and how mature they are," Sharp said. "The younger the children, the more concerned they are going to be with what's going on and if they're the one who has caused the problem. It's important to be aware that this is nothing that they have done. They haven't caused the problem, and they aren't being punished. Their place in the family is secure. And the family will get through this together. That's what very young children need to hear."
-- Teens can understand the opportunities. "For pre-teens and teens, this can show them the realities of life. They can learn to save money, and for the family to save," Young said. "There are obvious shifts. It's a good thing to save money."
-- Watch for signs that warn kids are upset. "It's a delicate balance. Young children can become anxious in many ways such as having nightmares and other anxiety problems," Ramsey said.
"Anxiety can be shown in a few ways. Children may have nightmares, or dreams about 'Is Dad going to be able to take care of me?' There is a fear of abandonment. And at school, they may be acting out at other children. So parents need to look at their children's behavior patterns and their sleeping patterns."
Children often express themselves through behavior - positively or negatively, Sharp said.
"Children will pick up on emotions without having any understanding why they're feeling it," Sharp said. "If our parents are stressed out and tense and fearful and walking around on egg shells, the kids are going to pick up on that. They're going to be very worried and won't know why."
-- Your own behavior can set tone for the family. "It's important for parents to keep their stress levels at a moderate level," Sharp said.
"Emotional discussions need to be done in private. Then the parents can team up and approach current challenges together."
Parents may even see the stress in their child before recognizing it in themselves.
"Children are often the explorers for the psychotherapy of the family in distress," Young said. "A parent will bring in a child and say, 'He's depressed.' Well, how is your family doing? Where else might the anxiety be? You're dealing with the issue of how families interact. This is a family issue."
It's crucial for parents to offer a united front for the children, and to keep stress levels at a minimum for all members of the family, according to Sharp.
"The things you want to avoid around your children are arguing about money in front of your kids," Sharp said. "As parents you're really struggling with your own fear and anxiety, and you do want to shelter your children from that. Get the support you need as an adult. There is a lot of fear out there, and that's to be expected."
© 2009, The Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho).Visit The Idaho Statesman online at http://www.idahostatesman.com.Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.