As Albertans brace themselves for more tough economic times ahead, many parents are dealing with increased stress and anxiety relating to job security, job loss and family finances. Alongside mounting parental distress, however, come concerns about the mental health and emotional well-being of Alberta’s children.
Secure, nurturing and communicative parent-child relationships are a protective factor for children throughout their lives, and especially during times of uncertainty. Tremendous social and emotional learning occurs within the context of the parent-child relationship, and it is this learning that has the largest impact on a child’s success and well-being later in life. Unfortunately, as parents grapple with increased stress and anxiety in their own lives, the quality of that parent-child relationship may wind up at risk. In particular, when their own emotional well-being is challenged, parents may be more preoccupied and abrasive and less patient, empathetic and present when interacting with their kids. Parents may be overwhelmed with feelings of fear and guilt about their ability to provide for their family.
Children are highly attuned to their parents’emotional presence and well-being. When parents begin to disengage, this can lead to children feeling insecure, overwhelmed and confused about their own self-worth. Additionally, because children rely heavily on the parent-child relationship to positively explore their own emotions, strain on that relationship can leave kids to deal with stressors without the support of their main caregivers and advocates. When children face increased stress and decreased nurturing or guidance, they can develop limited or unhealthy emotional regulation and stress management tools. In the long-term, this can dramatically impact a child’s health, well-being, and socio-emotional fulfillment and success.
During dire economic circumstances, stress and anxiety are realities that many parents have to face. However, in order to minimize impact on children, consider the following tips and suggestions:
1. Be proactive. When finances are tight, parents often place themselves at the bottom of their list of priorities. However, it is precisely during stressful times that parents need to proactively invest in their own mental and emotional health. Physical activity, social connectedness and a healthy sleep cycle can go a long way toward supporting parental mental health. Counseling agencies and community support groups can provide parents with help.
2. Low-cost, high-yield activities. Together with your children, brainstorm low-cost, high-yield activities that allow for lots of quality time without a huge price tag. Examples include going for walks, cooking meals together, playing board games or reading to each other. Although these activities are inexpensive, they allow parents and children to connect with each other for an extended period of time and offer kids a sense of grounding and comfort. During these activities, remember to eliminate all distractions, such as cell phones, laptops and work materials. Use this time to be present, patient and empathetic with your children.
3. Reconnection over reassurance. During times of hardship, it is often parental instinct to reassure kids that everything will be okay. The challenge with reassurance is that nobody knows what the future holds. It is impossible to truthfully reassure children about variables beyond our control - we cannot make any guarantees. Take this opportunity to reinforce connections with your children and reassure them that, no matter what, you will remain a loving and present protector and advocate in their lives. That is a promise you will be able to keep, and it will promote an authentic and positive parent-child connection.
4. Bring your children into the know. Children interact with information at school, through their peer networks and in their own use of technology. Taking control of the conversation and speaking to children, in age-appropriate language and detail, about financial realities may be necessary for many families in this economy. Younger children and preteens may not be interested in the nuances of an economic downturn or exact dollars in the bank account, but they will be able to grasp that money right now is limited.
However, talking to your children about money doesn’t need to be a bleak affair. After explaining financial limitations, emphasize positive financial practices such as saving, spending wisely and differentiating between wants and needs. Children are likely to have ideas of their own when it comes to being wise with money and contributing to a reduced family budget. When coupled with quality parent-child time, these discussions can reinforce the idea that, even when money is tight, families can still remain close, loving and connected.
5. You’re not alone. It can be challenging for parents to navigate economic hardship, both in terms of supporting their own mental health and that of their children. Remember, there are mental health professionals and agencies throughout the province that are available to offer services at a reduced cost. These professionals can help you talk to your children about finances and support you and your children in proactively acquiring positive coping mechanisms. Counseling and skill-building supports are available through Alberta Health Services (for more information, call HealthLink Alberta at 811) and child-centered support may also be available through your child’s school.
Soraya Lakhani is a registered psychologist and the Clinical Director of Yellow Kite Child Psychology, a full-service child psychology practice located in Calgary. Soraya is a frequent media commentator and her perspectives on childhood and parenting have appeared in several media outlets including Global and CBC.
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