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Parents Aren't Only Ones Who Feel Stress of Unemployment

THURSDAY March 25, 2010 -- With nearly 10 percent of the nation's workforce unemployed, the emotional impact of a job loss is well-known to millions of Americans. But the psychological fallout can be equally tough for their children.

Children living in homes where at least one parent is jobless potentially face a range of emotional issues -- from stress and depression to poor school performance and behavioral problems. What's more, the lower standard of living and loss of health insurance often lead to poor health for many of these children, experts said.

"Whenever there's a downturn, it's the kids who suffer a significant burden," said Dr. Christopher Bellonci, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston. "When families are doing well, they can buffer some of this stress. When they can't, it bleeds through to the kids."

Nationally, one in seven children (10.5 million kids) has an unemployed parent, said Dr. Audrey Walker, director of child and adolescent psychiatry at the Children's Hospital of Montefiore Medical Center in New York City.

In a recent CBS News/New York Times poll of more than 700 unemployed adults, nearly half of those who reported being unemployed for six months or more said their children's lives had changed; nearly 40 percent said they had noticed changes in their children's behavior.

For children raised in comfortable middle-class families, this may be their first taste of hardship. For those who come from already disadvantaged homes, the further loss of income means even greater stress. Basic staples like food, clothing and school supplies begin to diminish. Long-term unemployment can mean public assistance for a family that has never struggled economically or force it to move far away, according to Ariel Kalil, a professor and developmental psychologist at the University of Chicago's Harris School of Public Policy Studies.

"Typically, people formerly thought of job losses as happening mostly to low-income families," said Kalil, who has studied the issue. "What is important about the present recession is how many middle-class and upper middle-class families have lost jobs and are experiencing economic insecurity. That kind of unexpected shock can have psychological effects on parents that can trickle down to kids."

Unexplained anger and anxiousness are common signs of emotional distress in children, said Marta Flaum, a child psychologist from Chappaqua, N.Y. Rapid changes in social behaviors, including aggressive acts, and school performance are signs as well. Pre-teens and teens may be the most affected because they are more aware of what's going on around them and feel the social consequences of unemployment more acutely. There's less money for extracurricular activities, and their home life may be upended.

To help children emotionally withstand the financial downturn, Walker and other experts offered several tips for parents:

  • Talk with your children about the new reality in your family, but try not to communicate panic. Be hopeful and reassuring as best you can.
  • Listen to your children.
  • Watch for signs of anxiety, worries and fears; some of them may be subtle.
  • If you sense a problem, talk to your child's teacher first. If it's a serious problem, seek psychological help.
  • If your marriage is struggling, try to make it better. Marital discord adds to a child's strain.
  • If you or your partner is experiencing excessive anxiety or depression, get help.

One unemployed parent who took these tips to heart is Colin Fox of Brewster, N.Y. Fox was laid off from his job in internal communications in 2008. His wife, Sue, still works, but their two teenage boys know that life is not the same anymore.

"We talk to them, and they seem to understand that money is tighter," said Fox, who is using his layoff as an opportunity to pursue a career in occupational therapy. "But my 16-year-old son, Brian, is worried about his college expenses. He was always aware how expensive college is. Now, he really understands."

More information

The National Institute of Mental Health has more on child and adolescent emotional health issues.

Posted: March 2010


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