Talking to Our Kids and Helping Our Families to Support One Another During Difficult Economic Times
It is both exceptionally challenging and exceptionally important to try respond helpfully to our children (and even to our partners and friends) when we are worried about job and financial security. Research on trauma and stress tells us that feelings of insecurity and powerlessness are inadvertently conveyed to children even by parents who are trying hard to act as if nothing at all has changed. The good news is that research has also shown that children can remain emotionally strong and spiritually confident even through some very difficult situations when family members continue to have emotional and physical access to one another. Children and adults fare far better when both feelings and time are shared, when everyone has confidence that no matter what material sacrifices might have to be made, everyone will have always be able to rely upon one anothers presence and unconditional love.
Our Jewish tradition teaches us to aim for restraint and gentleness in communicationthe speech of the wise of is healing. For the wellbeing of everyone in the family finding calming and positive ways of communicating will assure that we all remain wellsprings of courage and confidence for one another. This really is the message of our tradition: Each of us is of infinite value not because of what we earn or what we have but because we are unconditionally loved and have the capacity and responsibility to bring love, goodness and justice into our world. The way we strive to behave in our families and friendships can strengthen our own sense of faith and can build the faith of others.
Here are some pointers that can be very helpful in making our homes and communities true sanctuaries during a difficult time:
The youngest children need simply to be told that there will always be enough love for them even if sometimes families have more money to spend and sometimes less. They need to be assured that the grown ups will make sure that the children will be safe and well taken care of. They may not have all the toys and treats they wish for and they may sometimes see grown-ups looking sad or worried but this is temporary. The important message is that everything will be okay. They need to protected from hearing too much that they will not understand and they need to continue routines such as, regular meals, baths and bedtime stories, visits to relatives. Young children especially need the structure that adds to security---but the rest of us benefit from reliable routines too.
School aged children can receive more information about our real financial situation but conveyed in hopeful terms and stressing that any hardships are temporary. They can be helped to do their part by turning off lights to lower electric bills, choosing which activities are most important (movie or bowling?) and even doing acts of tzedakah like making sandwiches for the homeless or collecting for food pantries. On the other hand, in general it is best to do what we can to keep their lives proceeding with as little change as possible. Because they grasp more facts we can forget they are still kids and need to be made to feel as secure as possible. Answer questions and be honest but try to keep conversations about concerns limited and focus on the day to day---school, family news, hobbies and shared activities. They want most of all to forget about grown up concerns and get on with the business of school and play.
Teens are complicated! In one moment they may seem altruistic and totally empathic as they offer to baby-sit, to get jobs, to contribute to the family in any way they can. In the next moment they may be belittling of parents for not providing more financial security (and for everything else!); they may make outrageous demands, alternating between demonstrating what seems to be great maturity and kindness and what seems to be incredibly self-centered and even cruel. Some teens may simply withdraw and seem to feel that they must not cause any trouble but be internalizing all of their worries and even blaming themselves for their own needs. Others may seem defiant and indifferent, covering their concerns with a veneer of self-sufficiency and rebelliousness. Adolescence is always a challenging time. We do best to resist the temptation of turning our kids into confidants, seeking more support from them than is fair. We also need not shelter them depriving them of the opportunity to understand our situation so that they can try to accommodate and help. It is reasonable to set limits if kids are yelling and insulting but important to let them say what they feel in ways that are not out of control. Hardest of all is not to retaliate and lash back at them when they are critical and challenging with us when we are not at our best. We will not always succeed but apologizing and attempting to recover a sense of calm and offering ongoing availability really helps.
Although hearing lots of demands may make us feel that our kids of all ages are simply greedy, it helps to remember that it is natural for all children (and all adults!) to wish for many things, even ones that we dont really need. Adding guilt into the hopper will not help. Tolerating expressions of frustration, anger and disappointment without retaliating or belittling will teach our kids that their feelings and they themselves are not bad and that they can cope with having less. We would do well to accept our own wishes and frustrations in the same spiritas natural, not signs of empty materialism, even if we have to do with less. Better not to say to ourselves or our kids, You always want everything! You are greedy! Better to say, There are lots of things in the world a person can want and I do want lots of them! I will be okay if I dont have them all because I do have people who understand and love me. Someday I may get more of the things that I want than I can right now.
Try to avoid words that convey a sense of gloom and permanence. Words like temporary, for now, until the situation improves are much more reassuring. This is difficult when it feels to us like nothing will change for the better so it helps to be involved in activities and conversations that support hopefulness and positive action. Be involved in projects and activities that help your family and others in the community so that all are reminded that we are not alone and that we can make a difference. Participation in congregational life offers the opportunity to help others, to enjoy shared recreational activities and to be part of a community of caring. Most important, being part of a congregation enables everyone to hear the words in our liturgy and in our history that affirm that we are not alone and that our hopes for a better time and a better world can be realized.