Jan 13, 2009
Developing Resilience in Tough Times
Everywhere we look these days, there is more stress-inducing news about the state of the economy. Many families are facing lay-offs, reduced hours, or loss of overtime, while some are losing their homes. This is a time of increased anxiety for some, grief and hardship for others. We are all looking for how to ‘cut-back’ to weather the economic storm. This article is written to provide information about how to protect your mental (and thereby physical) health during our economic downturn.
First: Take the best care of yourself that you can
This sounds obvious; of course all of us want to make our health a priority. However, recent data indicate that people are postponing or avoiding important medical and psychological care. It can be tempting to cut mental health care from the family budget, yet this can be a mistake with serious consequences. It is critical to consider your mental health as much a priority as your physical health. We often underestimate the impact of our mental health on our day-to-day functioning. People are often surprised to learn that according to the World Health Organization, the second greatest cause of missed work days across the world is depression*. The impact of mental health disorders on work exceeds that of many diseases and chronic conditions we typically associate with missed days, such as arthritis or asthma. Additionally, many physical problems have mental health components. Conditions such as fibromyalgia, migraines, back pain, obesity, and diabetes can respond well to combining psychological treatment and medical care.
Even without physical problems, the anxiety brought on by economic woes can be toxic. In times of increased stress, people are more likely to argue with spouses, physically abuse children, and turn to illicit substances or other destructive behaviors in an attempt to manage anxiety. Anxiety can bring out the worst in us. When we are overwhelmed, we may lack the resilience to meet the demands of bad economic times, such as working extra hours or caring for an aging parent at home. Anxiety and depression interfere with our sleep, leading us to be tired and irritable. When we are sleep deprived, we are more likely to do and say things that we would not if we were feeling better (e.g. lashing out at our little ones or driving aggressively). Such maladaptive behaviors only make our problems worse, which in times of economic depression can make the difference between being able to ‘sink’ or ‘swim.’ Anxiety and depression are conditions that respond best to a combined approach of psychotherapy and medication for most individuals.
We must not consider psychological care a luxury. It is far from selfish to make our own mental health care a priority, especially for those of us who have families. Our spouses and children are counting on us to function. Trying to ignore our own need for mental health care (or couples treatment) may save money in the short term, yet it will hurt everyone in our family if we are angry, depressed, anxious, or hopeless. I often use the analogy of the air masks on a plane. Remember how the flight attendant tells us to put our own mask on first before helping others? We can not help our loved ones if we do not take care of ourselves as well. Our children will benefit most from having parents who can cope, far more than they ever will from having expensive toys and outfits.
Second: Help your children become resilient
Your children are hearing the same media messages you are, yet they have limited understanding of what the information means. Children tend to have very concrete concerns in times of crisis. For example, they may see their parents fighting about money, and worry that they are going to get a divorce. A ‘tween’ girl may sulk about not being able to shop at the expensive, trendy store even after you explain that you cannot afford it. Children may ask if they will have to move out of their house, or worry that they will not be able to keep the family dog. When you talk to your children about economic matters, remember to address their very practical concerns using simple language. If you do not know how to answer a question (ones such as “Why are you and Mommy always fighting?” or “Why doesn’t daddy go to work anymore?”), ask your child what he thinks the answer is before you respond. You may find that your child knows what is going on, and just wants reassurance. You may also find that he has come to a completely illogical conclusion about events, such as believing that the problems are his fault. Reassure your child about irrational fears, and give very simple, basic answers about what is going to change or happen. Kids usually need more reassurance than they do details. Your child may need you to explain things again and again before they understand, so do not be afraid to repeat yourself often. Make sure to give extra affection to comfort him.
If you child is over five, he is likely to respond well to being able to do something to help. Kids will develop a sense of pride about pitching in to help the family. Children can perform helpful tasks such as clipping coupons, looking out for sales, or helping you make choices about what to buy in the grocery store. Children can do an excellent job playing detective by identifying wasted energy or water. Your children may surprise you with their tolerance for changing spending habits if they feel a part of the decision making process. For example, let older children determine how to spend money allotted for treats or entertainment. Instead of “No! I told you ten times that we can’t afford those cookies anymore!” try “Well, we can get that brand if we decide to go without chips. What do you think of that?” Children can help you select clothing or toys to consign and give to families in need. They can plan garage sales. They can help you fix things around the house. Older children can earn extra money by helping neighbors with pet care or lawn work. Ask your librarian for books about families going through tough times (the Ramona books by Beverly Cleary are terrific; those of us who were girls in the early 80’s remember Ramona ‘scrimping and pinching to make ends meet’). With the help of books and movies, you can help your children to develop an attitude of teamwork.
Finally, acknowledge that your children’s feelings about having less are ok. A child may not be happy about not getting an IPod, but that does not mean he is spoiled, just human. Nobody likes to do without. Let the kids do a little venting here and there while you listen without being judgmental. Encourage daydreaming. It can be fun to play the ‘what if we won the lottery tomorrow . . .” game. You, the parent, will set the tone for turning their attention away from material things and towards what is important in life, like play, friends, and family time. Many people who live through difficult times emerge with a sense of achievement, because they met and mastered a challenge. Tough economic times can force us to teach our children important lessons about their own abilities.