EXPLAINING MONEY PROBLEMS TO YOUR PRESCHOOLER
First 5 LA Offers Ten Tips to Parents on Handling a Financial Crisis
LOS ANGELES----------- The economic downturn can force uncomfortable situations on parents, like having to tell their 5-year-old that she can't have a big birthday party with all her friends this year because otherwise there won't be enough money for groceries. Suddenly forced to deprive their children of material items, it's natural for parents to feel like they've let their kids down. But even more troubling for children than the one-time disappointment of a canceled or scaled down celebration are the on-going feelings of financial and emotional uncertainty that parents may unknowingly project to their preschoolers when they lose a job, car or the family home. Since youngsters may become fearful when their family is facing financially shaky circumstances, parents need to help their children feel secure, even if adult members of the family are feeling anxious over the situation.
A 20-year study of 450 families hit hard by the severe farm belt recession in 1980 showed that the emotional effects of financial woes on young children can be considerable, often triggering depression, anxiety, adjustment problems and poorer peer relationships. Yet, how do parents paint a realistic picture of their family's current financial condition without creating more uneasiness in their children? "It is a delicate balance," said Evelyn V. Martinez, executive director of First 5 LA, a child advocacy and funding organization. "But any changes in a family's patterns, like a parent staying at home because of a job loss, call for an explanation, even to very young children." Martinez said that in the absence of facts and reassurances, young children in particular, tend to imagine the worst. "Children 5 years and under often engage in what is called magical thinking," explained Katie Fallin, PhD and early childhood development expert. For example, in a young child's mind it is very possible that it rains because the sky is sad. Or, they may assume that if they're losing their house, they will also lose their parents. She suggests that parents present the facts briefly, honestly and in a matter-of-fact way to their children.
Preschoolers take their cues about how to feel from their parents and it helps to "normalize" your family's problems by putting them in a broader context said Fallin, also a research analyst with First 5 LA. To preschoolers, a parent might say, "You know how your friend Johnny couldn't buy an ice cream cone yesterday? Let's talk about why that happened." Ralph E. Cash, president of the National Association of School Psychologists, believes that the information we try to hide from our kids doesn't matter nearly as much as how they see us behaving and feeling. "There is an important parenting secret here," Cash said. "Recognize that how you act and what you say these next days, weeks or even months can affect your children's emotional well-being not only now but long-term. While you may not be able to save your job or house, there are ways to help your family get through these tough times."
Ten tips to help your preschoolers better handle family financial crisis:
- 1. Don't hide the truth. While you don't need to tell kids all the facts, you owe them an explanation tailored to their level of understanding. For a young child: "Daddy and Mommy are a little worried about work right now but we're doing what we can so everyone will be all right." If you are about to lose your home or job make sure you are the one to tell your child.
- 2. Acknowledge your worry. Begin with a simple: "I know you've noticed that Dad and I have been upset lately, so we wanted to let you know what's going on." Your child may not seek you out when they see that you are upset, so make sure to go to your child to explain your emotions.
- 3. Keep an open dialogue. Be there to set your children straight on the facts and dispel any doom and gloom ideas they may be harboring by asking, "What have you heard?" or, "What are your friends saying?" Let your child know he or she is not alone-there are other kids who are suffering as well.
- 4. Economize in a way that's clear and fair. If you need to scale back on your children's activities, allowing them to pick from a few options may decrease their disappointment. You might also consider less-expensive child-friendly activities at local community centers and libraries. And don't forget to show kids that you're also cutting back on some of your own "extras."
- 5. Stick to routines. This helps reduce worries because it boosts predictability and security. During tough times those routines are crucial for kids. Bedtime rituals, story time, warm baths, hugs and back rubs should continue regularly.
- 6. Set a budget. Explain to your children that you need to cut back family expenses. Don't go into details about your finances. Instead, tell them that you need to set a budget. Enlist your youngsters' help in prioritizing spending. It's a great way to teach financial planning.
- 7. Reduce conflict. Parents should avoid yelling or arguing in front of their children. Studies show that during tough economic times constant parental conflicts cause children the most emotional damage. Remember that no matter what, your kids come first.
- 8. Reduce stress as a family. Staying calm yourself is the best way to reduce your children's worries. Find no-cost ways to alleviate stress. Try listening to relaxation tapes, doing yoga with your kids or riding bikes with your preschooler. Not only will you reduce your stress, but you'll also teach your kids healthy ways to minimize their own anxieties.
- 9. Tune into your child's emotions and, if necessary, ask for help. Watch for stress signs or behaviors that are not typical for your child. Enlist a relative or friend who cares about your child to spend a bit more time with him. Talk to your doctor or ask your minister for advice. If at any time your child's emotional or physical well-being is at risk, pick up the phone as soon as possible and seek professional help.
- 10. Offer hope. Your family may be hurting due to household finances and the emotional toll on you as a parent may be severe. But children are resilient and what they need most is reassurance that you will make it through this time of financial uncertainty together. Be honest, "I don't exactly know how things will turn out, but I'll do absolutely everything possible to get us through this difficult time." Above all, give your kids a message of hope: "We're together whatever happens." For more information or help with this and other parenting concerns of families with children five and under, contact the First 5 LA Parent Helpline at 1-888-347- 7855.
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