By Elizabeth M. Casparian, PhD.
An economic crisis such as our current recession can wreak havoc on overall health and family stability. Job loss, including loss of health insurance, home foreclosure, changes in lifestyle, inability to maintain memberships in clubs and social organizations, inability to continue private school tuitions, etc create stress in adults – to a greater or lesser degree, depending on how severe the financial strain. Research shows that large scale economic distress manifests itself increased substance use and abuse, depression, insomnia and eating disorders. As stress continues over time and the economy remains unpredictable, people experience more stress and make poorer decisions about their health.
Teenagers too, experience the effect of an unstable and unpredictable economic climate. In some cases, the affect of the economic challenge is obvious to them such as having a parent who has recently become unemployed now home every day, to seeing parents struggling to pay bills or make decisions about doing repairs in the home, as well as parents bemoaning their financial distress on a regular basis to the entire family.
Because teens are still developing, many can only see how the financial stress will affect them and experience their anxiety in dramatic ways. Often, a young person will misinterpret or inflate a comment they hear a parent make, and become unduly worried. When young people feel hopeless, out of control and afraid, they too make poorer decisions about their health and safety. Substance use and abuse, risky sexual behavior and criminal activity increase on top of typical adolescent experimentation, putting teens at increased risk.
Parents often ask how much of their financial worries should be shared with their children. While teens can participate in helping their own family cope with hard times, remember that they are still immature and it is NOT their responsibility to recue the family. Creating a sense of hope, providing positive action steps that can make a difference, and making expectations clear will help your teenager feel more able to cope with your stress and feel as if they are helping, but not responsible for solving the crisis.
1. Have a family meeting and brainstorm practical ways the family can reduce expenses such as; (turning lights off and keeping heat low, eating brown bag lunches and more meals at home, clipping coupons and making lists to avoid impulse purchases)
2. Plan low- and no- cost family activities at home that allow everyone to have fun, laugh and relieve stress together. This helps remind kids that people and relationships are more important than things. Examples include: family walks, board games, collaborative meal prep, craft projects.
3. Keep stressful conversations about financial distress between adults until you have a plan of action and a rough idea of a timeline. Having to move, sell personal belongings or a home, switch schools, leave a job or take a job with lower stature are all signals to young people that things are unstable. They need to know, even when it feels overwhelming and frightening to you, that the adults in charge are going to make things work out.
4. Allow teens time to vent about what is bothering them about financial challenges, even if they seem petty by comparison to adult worries. Letting them tell you how it feels to go without that pair of expensive boots, or changing their own spending habits will help them cope. Developmentally, teenagers are generally concrete thinkers and have a somewhat self-centered approach to almost everything, so even if it is irritating, allow them to share how they experience the situation without being critical of their feelings.
5. Offer hopeful and positive feedback whenever possible. Noting what a strong family they have, thanking them for their efforts, acknowledging their pain, and reminding them that they are loved are all ways to provide them with the sense of safety and hope that teens need.
Elizabeth M. Casparian, PhD. is the Executive Director of Princeton-based HiTOPS. To learn more, visit www.hitops.org.