New research about the way we live
Hard times are bringing families together
By Susan Newman, Ph.D
We’re all affected in one way or another by the current economic situation. It’s a time of uncertainty, and no one knows exactly what the future will bring.
Don’t underestimate what your children already know or think they know. They’ve heard the news on TV. They may have overheard your conversations at home and other kids talking at school. They may know someone whose parents lost a job or must sell their home. They may be wondering if their lives will be changed in some other way for the worse.
It may sound like Pollyanna to say there can be a positive side to these events, but it’s true. This can be an opportunity to teach your kids some important life lessons—for example, that we can’t always get our way or have everything we want. They’ll learn also about budgeting, saving, cooperation and how to be a more supportive family.
Be truthful in an age-appropriate way
Chances are, younger children will have seen and heard things that are scary. To reassure them, confirm what they think they’re already observing. “You might say, for example, ‘if I look a little worried or I’m not playing with you as much this week, I’m busy and trying to take care of things at work’,” says Dr. Stanley I. Greenspan, author and child psychiatrist.
Older kids can handle more information. In fact, they may exaggerate family problems if they’re kept in the dark. Being truthful is essential-, both for underscoring key lessons and keeping children from panicking.
If you’ve lost your job or anticipate losing it, you could talk to an older child about how companies decide which employees they will keep and which ones they will let go. You might explain seniority or how the demand is less for your company’s products or services. For a younger child, a simple announcement is enough.
Through ups and downs, you’ll want to:
Stay calm. How you react to the country’s and your personal economic problems is probably how your children will react. Try to set a good example: watch how you spend. Avoid hushed conversations, angry outbursts and fights over finances.
Maintain routines. Strive for normalcy by keeping routines intact: family dinners, homework, reading together, baths and bedtimes. Let kids know that it’s still OK to be happy.
Don’t blame yourself. Children from 11 to 15 are most likely to assume it was your fault if you lost your job. Have conversations in which kids can express how they feel. Emphasize that Mom or Dad didn’t do anything wrong.
Be sympathetic. If your child is unhappy about something he or she can’t do right now, be sympathetic but firm. Send the message that your financial constraints are real and important. Make the point that you’re not alone—that many families are scaling back.
Don’t assume the worst. Avoid talking to your children about negative things that may (or may not) happen—a pay cut, job loss or possible move. When you’re sure the situation is a reality, explain it without baring every detail of your financial situation.
Don’t be surprised by some selfishness. Teenagers especially may express anger because they didn’t get the new sneakers or iPod they wanted (and may even have been promised). Remind them that many families are going through even harder times. Encourage them to find ways to make some money themselves.
Let children know they’re safe. Reassure your children that, no matter what changes come your way, you will keep them safe. Now’s a good time to offer more hugs and kisses. And let them know that what’s going on now isn’t forever.
Enlist your kids’ help. Be clear and forthright in explaining that everyone needs to help in cutting costs. When I was a child, my parents asked us to turn out the lights when we left a room. If we forgot and were caught, we had to put a dime in the family piggy bank. Younger children will delight in catching their older siblings or parents who leave a light on.
Children have good ideas. You might be surprised by kids’ suggestions for ways to save the family’s money. Here are a few I heard recently:
Instead of going to a movie, let’s rent one.
We can make our own pizza.
I could stop my ballet lessons for a while.
We can take shorter showers.
Children are more willing to help than you might imagine—and they’ll help even more if they feel they have a say in a decision or it was their idea.
The feeling of “we’re in this together” creates cooperation, hopefulness and determination. As parents, we want our children to be happy all of the time—but that’s not real life. Once we’re on the other side of the downturn, we can feel good that we’ve helped our children to be more resilient, to bounce back when the family works together and, most of all, to be grateful for what we do have.
Dr. Newman is the author of “The Book of NO: 250 Ways to Say It and Mean It.” Visit her website at susannewmanphd.com.
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