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How can children cope when Dad or Mom lose their jobs?

By David Paltin, PhD
(Child Psychologist)

Children Feel the Tension of Job Loss Too

It started with complaints about pains in her shoulders and neck, described Alexa’s mother, talking about her 11-year-old daughter’s symptoms of stress.  She started waking up complaining of pain, and missed a couple of days to school.  “We took her to an urgent care, but not before I had an argument with her dad over the expense.  We thought it had to do with problems with her friends, but she told the doctor it was because of our money problems.”  Alexa’s father, an auto parts dealer for a major car manufacturer lost his job sending his family into an economic black hole.  Alexa felt the tension and heard the arguments, and began to feel worried every time she had to ask for field trip money or a costume for a play she was in at school.  Estimates from Duke University and the Foundation for Child Development predict that over 3 million children will enter poverty because of the current economic recession.  The unfair situation of parental job loss is that children know something very tragic has happened to the family but they don’t have the coping skills to deal with it.  Children are especially sensitive to the emotional roller-coaster of economic insecurity, but haven’t had the life experiences that parents use to talk themselves through the situation.  The effects of economic stress on children are real.  According to a University of Davis study, children who have a parent that has lost a job are 15 percent more likely to repeat a grade.

Even though obvious and drastic changes can occur when mom or dad loses their job, from cutting out family outings to having to move in with other family members, problems for children can be traced to more subtle and underlying changes in the family.  “My dad started yelling about lights all the time,” 8-year-old Joseph described, “he was a real crab.”  In many studies on the effects of recessions on children, the increase in parental conflict and family tension is shown to have a stronger effect than the actual loss of family financial resources.  Parents fighting over their situation, blame and name-calling, and using “survival communication” with each other, set the tone for a child’s emotional response to looming poverty.  Many families begin to face “food insecurity,” which has a particularly damaging effect on the family’s sense of well-being and security.  What is the psychological impact on children of these very real situations faced by their parents?  In counseling clinics and children’s health centers we see a risk in children with “survival symptoms,” or, psychological conditions that are based in economic insecurity.  Signs of anxiety are especially common, including stomachaches and headaches, unrealistic worry, and body symptoms such as hair pulling, nail-biting, or picking.  But behavior can be affected as well as children show more irritability, problem behaviors at school, or isolating inside themselves.  Children are in an especially vulnerable position because they feel the insecurity but have little or no power to do anything about it.  When they see dad or mom become withdrawn, only to come out of the room or off of the computer job search to yell about noise or behavior, it role-models a problematic style of coping to this family challenge.  Children watch parents closely to learn how to handle the stress of the new situation.  If parents are more irritable and verbally snap more often, it shouldn’t be surprising when children follow closely behind.  Some behaviors that may signal that economic stress has filtered down to children in the family may include:

  • Irritability and negative statements about life
  • Generally anxious questions about the future, about the safety of the family
  • Increased fighting and arguing with siblings and adults
  • Frequent physical complaints/calls from the school health office
  • Greater demands for parent attention/clinging and worries about separation
  • Spontaneous offers to help the family with finances
  • The appearance of tics, nervous habits, or nervous behaviors

Concerns about losing a home and having enough to eat are particularly troubling to children.  As parents, we have our own difficulties hiding the enormous stress we feel when we are traumatized by losing our family’s primary income.  Fathers and mothers find it hard to resist making offhand comments about not being able to pay the rent or mortgage, about being forced out by the bank, or negative comments about “extras” such as a child’s music lessons or the cost of sports activities.  Developmentally, children have difficulty moving from anxiety to planning and problem-solving, and don’t know how to cope with statements like “we’ll be living on the street if I don’t find a job.”

For 8-year-old Joseph, his parents’ worried communication about homelessness and getting enough to eat led him to tears.  “I’d find him in his room curled up in his stuffed animals crying.  When he told me how scared he was about our situation, I knew we had to get our own language under control,” Joseph’s mother described.  True to his developmental perspective, Joseph was worried about having to give away all of his toys and had started to mentally sift through items he would want to keep and ones he would lose.  “His father and I had been talking about selling things off to delay foreclosure, and he took this to mean that the bank wanted his things too.”

Finding a Better Way to Cope

Parents often describe a “wake-up call” from their children, or a day that they realize that the stress of economic insecurity is breaking the family apart.  When this happens, it is time to change the things that can be changed in the situation, namely the strategies that parents give to children to cope with this drastic situation.  But what can be done and said when the future does seem like looking into a dark tunnel?  According to the National Association of School Psychologists it is important to stress the resiliency that people have in coping with economic crisis, in addition to trying to develop a more optimistic or realistic outlook.  There are some other definitive strategies that can be taken to address insecurities in children:

  • Give them a frame of reference, a perspective for understanding what is happening to them.  Some families find support from religion by letting a child talk to a spiritual leader or youth support person.  Another way of giving perspective is to describe this as a historical event in occurring in our country, as well as in the family’s history.  Talking about how our grand parents or great grandparents got through their tough times and how children helped out in keeping the family moving forward can offer hope that these difficult times may lead to change but won’t last forever.
  • Make sure that “signs of life” continue in the family, and that survival does not take center stage at all times.  Laughing, playing, and doing things together that celebrate being in the family are powerful weapons in fighting back fear.
  • Help your child understand why you seem so preoccupied at times not by going over your own sadness and worry, but by stressing that this is a difficult problem that sometimes takes up your full attention.  Try writing down some of the solutions or options you are thinking of in your own efforts and show these to your children.
  • Take care of your own signs of stress.  Teach children how a person can still be good and kind to themselves even under frightening circumstances.  Make a point of limiting your own “survival behaviors”  such as insecure eating, and instead demonstrate one or two healthy habits that you can control during these difficult times.
  • Have a family meeting to come up with a list of resources, ideas, and family strengths.  Don’t brush away children’s offers of help, because they are looking for a sense of purpose and direction just like the parents in the family.
  • Take away some of the unknown by describing what might change in the family’s routine, schedules, or activities.  Give them some time frames so they can know what to expect.  Stress that some of these changes may be temporary and some may be permanent, but be clear that the changes will help the family stay on track through this problem.

The temptation to “give in” to the whirlwind of emotions that accompany loss of family income is great, and tempers and negative communication will happen despite parents’ best efforts at self-control.  Feelings of embarrassment and shame about having to approach a church or food donation organization, or about explaining to relatives the family’s situation can lead to avoidant responses that can be learned by children.  When it is necessary to reach out for help, letting children know that we stand together in as a community or country to help each other is a sign of strength, not weakness.  The following support organizations are in the forefront of helping address the widening line between economic security and “middle class poverty” that many families are experiencing during this recession:

While not offering direct assistance, advice and support from the government’s information program for affordable housing can be found at http://makinghomeaffordable.gov/.