Economy got you down? It’s OK to involve the kids

Our kids don’t pay mortgages, buy groceries or have stock portfolios, but they’re not immune to the economic crisis that’s plaguing the rest of us.

Our kids don’t pay mortgages, buy groceries or have stock portfolios, but they’re not immune to the economic crisis that’s plaguing the rest of us.

Certainly, a home foreclosure or job loss affects the entire family. Those who were already living paycheck to paycheck may find themselves having to move to less expensive housing or double up with other family members in too-small apartments.

Upheavals like that can be traumatic for all involved. Stressed-out adults may fight, fall into depression or turn to substance abuse, leaving their children feeling even more insecure.

Middle- to upper-income families may not experience the economic downturn so acutely, but they likely will face belt-tightening choices that no one likes, least of all children accustomed to getting what they want.

“These kids are in for a real rude awakening when they have to change their lifestyle,” says Bertie Conrad, who coordinates school-based counseling here at Youth Eastside Services.

By all means, she says, talk about bills, responsible credit card use and the bottom line. Teenagers will appreciate being pulled into these “adult” discussions as long as it is done in a constructive and developmentally appropriate way.

Particularly with Christmas coming up, now’s a good time to sit down and talk about what really matters. Is it the family being healthy and whole and together? Or getting an iPhone?

If your son must have the iPhone, let him work towards buying it himself. A part-time job can teach a teen critical life skills, including time management, how to cooperate with others and the relationship between work and money, wants and needs.

I know of one 16-year-old who gives a third of her pay to her parents for “rent.” That’s an extreme example, but not unique among the families we see.

While I don’t advocate that kids earn their keep, I do think many of them can help pay for some of their own expenses (clothes, gasoline and entertainment) provided they’re not working too much. If they’re sleeping through their first class because they just worked the night shift, that’s too much. School needs to come first.

A child who’s too young to hold down an outside job can do extra chores around the house to earn money. Depending on the child’s age or maturity level, he or she can also participate in some family decisions.

Our children simply aren’t equipped to carry our anxieties on top of their own worries.

Young children (elementary-age and younger) need reassurance that they’re going to be cared for and their basic needs will be met. That means we parents have to take care of ourselves: seeking support from friends and family; eating nutritious foods and getting enough sleep and exercise; and finding alternatives to television (known to be a contributor to depression).

Also, there’s no shame in seeking help from faith and social service organizations... or shopping at Value Village. That’s a message our kids should hear as well.

Above all, we need to talk to our children. Whether we realize it or not, they’re affected by the uncertainties of the economic crisis even if they don’t understand what’s causing it.

Be realistic, but positive as you explain in age-appropriate terms what’s happening with the world and your own family. Help your children express their feelings, and solicit and welcome their ideas.

The satisfaction of contributing to the family good can be a powerful balm for insecurity, economic and otherwise.

Patti Skelton-McGougan is executive director of Youth Eastside Services. Since 1968, YES has been a lifeline for kids and families, offering counseling, outreach and prevention programs to help foster strong family relationships and a safe community. For more information, call 425-747-4937 or go to www.youtheastsideservices.org.