Communicating with kids about the economy

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Not surprisingly, parents may be reluctant to discuss difficult economic times with their children.

Viewed as the province of adult anxiety, the burdens imposed by tumbling stock prices, falling home values, and rising unemployment are a powerful force, with 8 out of every 10 Americans blaming the U.S. economic crisis for much of the stress in their lives, according to a recent poll by the American Psychological Association.

While efforts to protect our kids from the pain may be well intended, chances are the kids already know how their parents are feeling and are accumulating some trickle-down stress of their own.

Still, the economy is often the proverbial elephant in the room.

But remaining silent may do more harm than good. Indeed, children, especially teens, tend to experience more anxiety when obvious financial stressors are left unaddressed. And stress can have negative effects on physiological and psychological well-being -- effects that often manifest themselves in poor decision-making.

When open, honest dialogue -- calibrated for age -- about financial challenges and choices provides a realistic, and at the same time reassuring, assessment of the current state of the economy and its impact on the family, young people feel safer, more confident, and more empowered to weather the downturn.

The tough economic times are also leading to cutbacks in some of the activities that keep young people on track and out of trouble. For example, the same poll revealed that 15 percent of teens dropped out of a sport or recreational activity because of financial strain, despite the proven physical and emotional benefits of such pursuits.

Similarly, the American Camp Association notes that some camps are experiencing a downward trending in summer enrollments of 8 to 10 percent.

Sadly, a child's choices in school may also be curtailed. Time Magazine reported on school districts across the country eliminating extracurricular activities, cutting back on field trips, and even thinking about dropping one day of classes a week, something 1 in 7 school boards is considering.

And other schools contemplate cutting back on physical education classes and the arts, fearing too little funding and too little time.

So kids are feeling the pinch, too -- not just in household budgets that may dictate when they can drive, what they can buy, and even where, or if, they can go to college, but also in play, socialization, and self-expression.

What cannot be overstated is the critical role of parents in communicating that they have a plan in place to deal with whatever a sour economy throws their way and that the underpinnings of familial support, love, and longevity are strong and sound.