What should we tell the kids?

Two of the biggest lies parents tell themselves are “kids are oblivious” and “kids are resilient.” The truth is, kids are neither. It is well known that children are great barometers of a family’s stress level. Though children may not respond consciously to stress in the family, they do respond with an increase of obnoxious or impulsive behavior which is a result of their normal, personal coping strategies being overwhelmed by the stress in the household.

Likewise, while children do adapt to stressful circumstances, that is not the same as saying that they are not affected by stressful circumstances. When going through difficult times, it is critical that parents help their children both identify the source of the increased stress and plan ways to help their children manage that stress more effectively:

If a person, even a young person, is going to be asked to go through something, they have the right to know what they are going through. That may sound obvious, but it is counterintuitive to many parents who have been led to believe that their children are clueless and narcissistic. Studies show that children are both more aware of what is going on than parents think, and more capable of empathy than parents believe. In fact, according to recent studies, cooperation and empathy are the normal responses healthy children make to the emotional distress of those around them.

But children can’t respond appropriately to their circumstances if they are not told what is going on. If you are going through financial hardship, then tell your kids, in simple, calm terms, exactly what that means to your family. Resist the temptation to go to the opposite extreme and confess all your fears, but do tell them the nature of your immediate circumstances in simple and direct terms. Then let them lead any further discussion by asking if they have any questions. This is not a conversation that you can have only once. Chances are, you’ll need to revisit the topic every week or so until you are through the crisis, but keeping those lines of communication open between parents and kids is critical if you are going to make it through as a family.

Children naturally want to help, and while they may not be able to do anything to get you another job or pay off that hospital bill (nor should they be put in the position of trying), they should be given the chance to contribute to your emotional well-being or even — in small ways — the family’s emotional well-being. For instance, you might say to your children, “Guys, Mom and I are really working hard to solve this problem, so it would really mean a lot to us if you could help us save our energy for getting back on track by just taking care of the dishes without us having to remind you.” Or, instead of waiting for your kids to ask for something at the grocery store or the mall, talk to them before going shopping about what they may and may not ask for and what you can and cannot afford to get them.

Even when you’ve done your best to remain calm and factual about your difficulties, sometimes children will be upset or have questions that surprise you (“Mom, are we going to starve?”). That doesn’t mean you were mistaken for cluing your children in. It means that you need to keep talking about how your family is going to get through your problems together. Take regular opportunities to ask, “So, how are you doing with the fact that we had to cut back on piano lessons this term?” Or, “Do you have any questions about what’s going on?” This gives you a chance to reassure your children that you have things under control and to clarify any issues they might be confused about.

Finally, try to keep up the normal activities that bond your family together, or take the opportunity to strengthen them. Treat these rituals and routines as a life preserver that keeps your sanity — and marriage and family life — afloat when the stormy seas are tossing you about.  CD

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