From a child’s standpoint, a family’s financial struggles represent uncertainty paired with helplessness. Even preschool kids are old enough to worry and feel stress about the future, and the fact that they have no control over the situation creates a sense of helplessness that only adds to their distress. Helping children cope is a matter of finding things that combat this sense of powerlessness while making them feel more stable and secure. This is done by affirming the importance and stability of things that don’t involve money, and by establishing habits and rituals that will provide a sense of stability. Here are some suggestions:
- Do what you can to try and avoid sudden changes, which are harder for kids to handle and evoke a stronger sense of helplessness.
- Involve kids in the planning of any changes that do occur, so that they feel like they have some say in the situation. This doesn’t mean you have to give them the illusion of choices, but at least allow them to be heard.
- Engage in gratitude exercises, such as having children write down all the things they are grateful for in a notebook. Point out how many of these items have nothing to do with materialistic things. You can also have them draw pictures of things they are grateful for, or start a tradition of saying something each of you are grateful for every night before bed. Basic as these exercises might sound, studies have found that they can help people cope with difficult times.
- Look for small ways in which children can help out so that they don’t feel as powerless over the situation. Be sure not to trivialize these things, even if they are small and insignificant in the overall scheme of things. The purpose of such tasks is to give children at least some semblance of control in a situation that they are otherwise helpless about. Here are some ideas:
- Light monitor: Put them in charge of making sure all the lights are turned off when not in use to save on electricity bills.
- Encourage them to go can collecting to raise a few extra dollars.
- Involve them in the task of finding ways to make old stuff into something new and useful.
- If you lost your job, ask them to be your “secretary” by always answering the phone politely and referring the call to you.
- Water monitor: Put them in charge of water conservation efforts to save money on your water bills.
- Help them save This is actually a good time to introduce kids to the idea of saving money. So if you can swing it, open your child a savings account. It doesn’t have to be much–if you put $5 into it, that’s enough to get them started. Many kids will gain a sense of security by being able to build their own savings during tight times. It doesn’t matter how much or how little is in there, it’s the thought that counts. Have them keep a jar somewhere in the house where they can deposit money they earn from collecting cans or from their allowance, assuming you can still afford to give it to them. Once every couple of weeks make a ritual out of going to the bank to deposit it.
- Let children share in the sacrifices. While it’s best to avoid forcing children into sacrifices that are too painful, you shouldn’t try to completely shelter them either. “Trying to protect your kids from experiencing any pain is not really the best way to be a parent,” says psychotherapist Olivia Mellan. In fact, “learning that they can’t get what they want is a very important life lesson.” (Block, 2009)
Kids often want to feel like they are helping out, so use this crisis as an opportunity to get in touch with the idea of shared sacrifice. Have a family meeting to discuss sacrifices each of you might make to help out the family. What can you do? What can you do without? Parents may even learn that their child wasn’t really enjoying the fancy ballet classes she was attending. By involving kids in the process of sacrifice, you can find out more about what’s truly important to them.
You can also discuss ways of sacrificing through behavior. As Lawrence Kutner writes, “Your children will feel good if they know that by cleaning their rooms or setting the dinner table, they’re allowing you the time you need to focus on your job search or your health.” (1996, p. 80)
- When it comes to financial struggles, attitude is everything, and kids are going to mimic whatever attitude you put forth. So be sure to model the right attitude. Talk about how tough times can make you stronger. Discuss how adversity builds character. This is also a great time to reaffirm core family values (honesty, integrity, hard work, etc.), something that has been found to have psychological benefits. “Talk about things you’re grateful for, so your children see you keeping money problems in perspective,” says Mark Eisenberg, Sc.D., M.P.H. “Show that you’re happy with what you have.” (Graves, 2010) An added benefit: Doing this will also help you see things in a less disparaging way.