Family anxiety and the economy

Recently our almost-independent oldest daughter called to say she was losing sleep over the economy. “Do you think I’m going to be OK, Dad?” she asked, “Are you and mom worried?”

I suddenly realized that her questions weren’t that easy to answer, but are extremely important to her mental health. Even though she’s a young adult who has “flown the coop,” she still turns to her mom and dad for advice.

My daughter helped me realize that my family, like most people these days, is affected by a low-grade but persistent distress brought on by the current state of the economy. Nearly every family is feeling uneasy and uncertain about what lies ahead.

Most of the current research points to the important fact that finances are the No. 1 source of family stress, and if the stress resulting from financial worries and struggles isn’t carefully handled, it can result in serious emotional turmoil in the family. Therefore, this is a good time to have a good sit-down family meeting about the economy.

If you have children of nearly any age, they’ve probably picked up on cues from you, the media, friends or other family members that there’s a lot of worry about the economy. Real fears about mortgages, bank failures, retirement-savings depletion, company layoffs and closings, raises and benefits being rescinded, etc., have us all worrying, and children are sensitive to our worries.

Based on some solid research, here are some tips for talking to your family about the tough economy:

• Open up lines of communication. This is not the time to just hold a “stiff upper lip” and keep everything bottled up inside. The more information your partner, your children and you share, the better they (and you) will be able to be resilient and get through this mess.

• Be straight but age-appropriate. Be careful what you say. Children, especially, are very sensitive to offhand comments, like “there goes our savings” or “I don’t know how we’re going to make it.” Instead, have a realistic discussion with each member of the family that’s geared towards their particular age and situation. Share everything with your partner, but not with your 6-year old. What a younger person needs to know is that you have a plan, that they are going to be cared for and that although things are different, they are going to be OK. Let teenagers know how they can help.

• Be sensitive to signs of distress. When family members aren’t sleeping or eating properly, when your children are having nightmares or look worried, it may be time for some old-fashioned family time. Turn off the TV and its constant ranting about the economy, and share some time doing inexpensive, stress-relieving things.

• Be deliberate, make a plan, and share it with everyone. Careful planning is the best way to beat tough economic times. Sit down with your partner and/or your financial adviser and make both short-range and long-range plans to deal with your current situation. Try to be proactive about what might lie ahead for you. Share the plan with your family and look for opportunities for them to contribute to the plan.

• This is a great time to instill good financial values in your children. Talk to them about saving, about how to pitch in, and how to practice good home economy. Teach them about how finances work, so they will feel both included and in control.

• Be optimistic for your family’s sake. Don’t create more stress on your family. Once you have a plan, spread the hope. The lesson of the Great Depression is that we did recover because of the resilience and ingenuity of the American family.

• Get help if you need it. Monitor your own stress levels. Marital problems, depression and emotional turmoil are often side effects of economic stress. You aren’t alone, and there are many good programs available to help you and your family, some of which are offered at your county Cooperative Extension Office. If your employer has an employee assistance program, this may be a good time to use it.

One thing historical research tells us is that hard times pass. However, your personal recovery program will depend at least in part on the strength and resilience of your most important asset, your family. Like I told my daughter, “It might be tough, but in the end we’ll get through it because we have each other.”

Dr. Malcolm Smith is family life and family policy specialist with UNH Cooperative Extension and teaches in the University of New Hampshire Family Studies Program. He can be reached at 603-862-7008, or