Sometimes the hard times come when there's a cascade of small problems, like spending too much for too long, a business that brings in less and less, or a lengthy illness. Today it's more likely that the hard times come as one big cannonball — job loss or a ballooning mortgage that eats up every bit of income. Some thoughtful conversation can help you and your kids sort out the issues without creating an atmosphere of fear and anxiety.
"We see people in our office who are drowning all the time but they're still doing for their kids, says Jan Safley, executive director of Consumer Credit Counseling Services of Southern Oregon. "Things are going badly for the family, yet the parents still try to keep the level of spending and everything the same for the children." When times get tough, old habits can be hard to break, especially when kids have come to expect the latest and greatest electronics and clothes. "It's human nature to want to spare your child any suffering," Safley adds.
Bad times can hit just about any family according to Loren and Steve Fogelman, therapists with Kolpia Counseling, and it can be really, really hard to acknowledge trouble, especially when it's financial. "You're talking about self-confidence, self-esteem, an ego that says 'I'm the breadwinner, I should be bringing in the money,'" Steve Fogelman notes. "And if its not happening then it really creates problems in the family. The dad or the mom might not want to talk with the kids and let them know they're hurting and dealing with some of these real-life issues."
It may be difficult to sort out the causes of stress when times get tough and it can be confusing to try and talk about them as a family. All of a sudden everybody's a little more impatient; they get angrier with each other and lose their temper a lot more. Alcohol and drug use can skyrocket and so can domestic violence. "When there are financial stressors, even the best marriages are tested," cautions Steve Fogelman. "If the marriage isn't quite as strong, that even creates more tension in the marriage and that tension definitely comes through in the household."
Whether you talk about troubles or not, kids are observant of their parent's behavior and sensitive to family tensions. Without conversation, young children may blame themselves for the family's troubles and teens can become angry at what they perceive as dishonesty.
"Parents need to talk about the difficulties from a responsible place, a place of ownership and make sure that the children are allowed to talk about their concerns and fears, validated but not to the point of creating fear," explains Loren Fogelman. "Then they can see this as a learning opportunity, they'll find character strength in them that they didn't know that they had."
"I think it's kind of a muscle to say no and as parents we have to exercise that muscle; many, many people are learning this for the first time," says Sue Lopez, family advocate with Ashland Head Start. "Whether it's the Dollar Store or the mall, we're all learning to prioritize. Talk with the kids about what you need before you go shopping," suggests Lopez. "If they want something, remind them, 'We agreed that we would buy only these things.'"
Helping kids understand the difference between want and need and that it's OK to ask for help is extremely important right now. "Learning how to adapt to what you do have — it's a very healthy conversation to have," she adds.