When we listen to children, we hear about their worries. The monster under the bed. The mean kid at school. And now, the economy. News headlines are confusing–and scary. And then it hits home. “My favorite teacher got a pink slip.” “Mom just lost her job.” “Boy, my parents are sure fighting a lot… about money.” What can we do to help our children and teens be hardy in times of upheaval?
1. Do our own work. Have you ever noticed when we’re stressed out and irritable, depressed or anxious or both… our kids are suddenly grumpier too? Or more withdrawn? It’s what I call the “trickle down theory of stress and anxiety.” Our children are so tuned in that they pick up cues we don’t even know we’re sending. Life is stressful AND we can take action to manage stress–to settle our minds and our bodies. Folk wisdom from the airline industry reminds us, “put your own oxygen mask on first and then help your children.” The best way to help our children manage stress is to be a calm, grounded presence. Explore stress-relieving strategies that engage your body. And breathe. Many relaxation and meditation traditions say the breath is like a bridge, bringing the body and mind together. Find what your body loves and do it. It may help you calm your mind as well.
2. Lead by Example. OK, let’s be real. Despite our best efforts, our nervous systems aren’t always calm! We get stressed out, lose our tempers, say things we wish we hadn’t. When you and your child are calm again, apologize. Let your child know you let your stress get to you but you’re working on it. Invite your child to share what her or his body feels like when she or he is stressed. Does he feel it in his tummy? Does she feel tight in her muscles? Open the door for a conversation about stress and ways to cope with it.
3. Stay in Our Bodies. Pick one! Being in nature, vigorous exercise, meditation, yoga, deep breathing, hot baths. My Qigong teacher is often asked which practices are best. He says, “If you practice it, it is good for you; if you don’t practice it, it isn’t good for you.” Find what you love. Then, do it! Help your child find the ones they love–and encourage them to do it! When you’re stressed, do something to relax and calm together–at no cost. Take a walk or play a laughing game. Blow bubbles. Do a craft. Dance. Lie on the ground underneath a tree and breathe. Close your eyes and discover how many different sounds you can hear. Notice what it feels like to calm the nervous system.
4. Protect Our Optimism. Know yourself. If you’re prone to depression or anxiety, take extra care to do the things that help you feel better. It’s different for each person of course, but if friends and music feed your soul, make sure you surround yourself with both. Sleep and healthful eating can be the first casualties of stress. Eat nourishing food. Rest. Share time with people who have hope and a positive outlook.
5. Take Care of Our Brains. Limit the news. Yes, it’s important to be educated and informed. It’s also important to protect ourselves from fear-arousing news stories. Neuroeconomics pioneer Paul Zak studies the brain and how the brain reacts to new news–especially the kind of “quick, high volume news that we get now”–the kind that puts our brains into high alert mode. “One thing I suggest to professional brokers is not to watch TV, where you’re going to get all this rumor and innuendo. Wait until the next morning and read the papers. Don’t get sucked into the news cycle” (Price, 2009). Good advice for those of us who are not brokers, as well.
6. Use Imagination for Good. Imagination is an amazing vehicle for creative solutions. But, let’s face it, we can also use it for harm. Those who tend to get anxious know–we can imagine an infinite number of things that can go wrong. This is where I say: Don’t believe everything you think! Dr. Martin Rossman of UCSF suggests exploring guided imagery as a tool for positive imagination and creative problem-solving.
7. Practice Gratitude. Psychological and spiritual traditions encourage gratitude. Some families today are keeping gratitude journals, or starting off each family meal with a list of three things for which each person is grateful.
8. Remember What Really Matters. If you’re not sure what matters, take this time to clarify. Write a family “mission statement”–or re-write it. And if your children are old enough, involve them in the process. What really matters to you? Is it connection, self-care, and fun? Growth and hope? Excelling and giving back? Spend some soul-searching time to get clear. Write about it. Use drawing and collage to illustrate it. And if your family has a dramatic flair, enact it! Then set about to bring it into life.
9. Structure and a Daily Routine. During any time of upheaval and distress, children and adults benefit from reliable routines and structure. Consistent meal times, bed times, a Sunday evening board game, a morning nature walk… enjoyable rituals can be very sustaining for our bodies and minds.
10. Talk Your Child’s Language. What you say to your 16 year old and what you say to your 4 year old about your family’s finances will be different. A young child may hear (or overhear!) you talking about “going to the poor house” and they may literally think they will soon be moving to a house with a big sign over the door “Poor House.” Your teenager, on the other hand, is part of classroom discussions about the economy and is maybe even writing a report on the topic. She may have lots more questions and some interesting opinions of her own. Along with thinking about your child’s age, consider your child’s temperament or personality. If she is inclined to be anxious, you may want to provide careful reassurance when talking about the economy. If your family is facing lots of other stresses in addition to the economic pressures (like an ill family member or a recent move), the pressures can add up for everyone. Watch for signs of stress in you child–is she sleeping well? Does he have a healthy appetite? If some of these things start going sideways, it may be a good idea to check in with a physician or a therapist (APA, 2004).
11. Learn Together. Being financially wise is a multi-fold process. Many families are taking this opportunity to do a household financial check up–reviewing needs, ways to conserve, expenses, goals, economic forecasting. Some are doing this in tandem with a financial consultant. In addition, many families are taking time to examine underlying beliefs and “core stories” about money. While we work with practical and underlying assumptions about money, it’s a great opportunity for our daughters–and sons–to learn about being “money smart.” See resources at the close of this article.
12. Seek Professional Help or Support. Sometimes it helps to reach out. Use credit counseling services and financial planners if appropriate. Take a financial literacy class. Talk to a mental health professional about stress; loss; changing underlying beliefs; re-visioning our lives; finding outer support & inner strengths… and ways to stay in our bodies.
Click here for more resources on staying in our bodies, stressing less, and financial literacy for girls.
American Psychological Association (2009). Managing your stress in tough economic times. http://www.apahelpcenter.org/articles/article.php?id=171
American Psychological Association (2004). Dollars and Sense: Talking to your Children about the Economy. APA Help Center.http://www.apahelpcenter.org/articles.
Price, M. (January, 2009). Mind Over Money. In Monitor on Psychology. Washington, DC.: American Psychological Association.
Please note: Nothing in what you find here should be construed as medical advice pertinent to any individual. As is true with all written materials, and especially information found on the internet, you must be the judge of what appears valid and useful for yourself. Please take up any questions you might have regarding the content of this website with your psychotherapist or physician.