Families can help each other by doing a good job of communicating during tough times. When job lay-offs or house payments are a puzzle with no easy answer, it is easy to shut down the family talk. Perhaps we "don't want to worry everyone," or "want to be strong and tough it out" -- alone. It is important to note that as stress mounts, and as adults struggle silently with a difficult issue, other family members see the stress. When parents don't bring up the subject, children may feel afraid or guilty. They often blame themselves, or may feel that it is taboo, or inappropriate to talk about worries. When parents don't talk to each other, isolation and frustration can tear at the fabric of the relationship. Talking to your spouse and to your children is the most important way to help them deal with changes going on during tough economic times. According to Judy Myers-Walls, of the Purdue Child Development staff, "If parents don't talk, children can imagine the worst."
The amount of stress depends, in part, on how much of a change is ahead. Sudden layoffs can be particularly upsetting. "If you had been on an upswing, it's more of a shock when the rug gets pulled out," Myers-Walls says. The larger the difference between what is expected and what actually happens increases the amount of stress.
Before parents talk to their kids, they should consider available options for the family, and work out some goals and guidelines. Families who are used to "family meetings," may prefer a "meeting before the meeting," to post a notice that all are loved and will be considered, but that change is coming. Brainstorming could give input for parents to consider. Parents should think about the reasons for the changes at home and how much they want to tell their children about the family's finances. The intensity of parent-child relationships sometimes makes it difficult to talk about painful situations. One of the most important things to tell children, she says, is what is going to change and what isn't going to change. "Many parents may want to take a positive approach to the situation by saying 'This is a chance to try something new -- it's time for a change anyway,'" she says.
In any case, it is vital to help each family member know that there are some hard challenges ahead, and that each person is needed to help tackle those challenges together. Parents need to emphasize that the most valuable things a family possesses are the shared things you cannot buy or sell. The love. The faith. The memories. The commitment to each other.
Identifying things that will stay the same may help children gain certainty in an uncertain situation. For instance, parents may tell their children the house rules will stay the same, but one thing that may change is that they will have to take their lunch instead of buy it. Parents also should assure children that the family will stay together.
The decision of how money should be used is different depending on the age of the children, Myers-Walls says. Older kids may be given choices, such as a cut in allowance, a different place to shop for clothes or different types entertainment. This helps older children feel they have more control.
Students in late elementary school may be more concerned about having certain items so they still feel like they fit in with other children. Explaining why these changes are necessary can help children accept the changes, Myers-Walls says.
Here are some ways you can keep the channels of communication open:
* Build the team. Make an extra effort to have one sit-down meal each day (TV, phones and computer games off) Make it a family ritual to take turns around the table, telling something good that happened during the day, and then other news -- something that was funny, hard, or help that is needed. Adults participate too,
* Be active outdoors every day -- as a group or individually,
* Build connections with caring groups at church or in the community that are separate from work and school,
* Go ahead and have fun! What about a family game night each week?,
* Let teachers know what is going on at home and ask them to contact the parents if they notice any changes in a child's behavior,
* Help children connect with other helpful adults. Sometimes they will feel more comfortable talking with someone outside the family,
* Put caring notes in lunch boxes or on doors, beds or mirrors,
* Make signs to hang on family members' bedroom doors describing how they are feeling that day. The signs can be as simple as paper plates with expressions drawn on them,
* Decide on a verbal or non-verbal signal to say, "We need to stop and talk" when things get intense,
* Do things you enjoy doing together -- something that doesn't cost anything, playing basketball, or cooking.,
* Have regular family meeting times or parent-child "dates,"
* Talk to kids while driving. Kids often perceive conversation in the car as non-threatening and feel comfortable with the parent as a captive audience, and
* Children who can draw or write, may enjoy shared journaling with parents or a special aunt or uncle -- written conversations or pictures drawn in a notebook placed in a central place, or mailed back and forth.
Coming soon -- more tips on handling tough times.
The following classes have been recently offered and materials are available:
Packing a Fun Lunch; Save 10 percent; How Do You Spell Etiquette? Mindless Eating; Choosing Linens and Things;
Extension Homemakers: There are 10 Indiana Extension Homemaker Clubs in Clay County. Call for information about one near you!
Contact us: You can contact the local Purdue Extension Office by calling 448-9041 in Clay County, or 829-5020 in Owen County for more information, to request copies of materials above, or for comments regarding this week's column topic. Purdue Extension is an equal opportunity, equal access institution.