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The Family That Frets Together: How the recession is stressing out our kids.

Lucy lived in a wealthy Los Angeles suburb with her stay-at-home mother and father, an executive in the medical industry. The four-year-old went to an upscale preschool where she spent her days playing and doing art projects, and her parents got along well. There weren’t many reasons for Lucy to be stressed out.

Yet, last year, Lucy began showing signs of anxiety: she began wetting her bed at night and sucking her finger. She had trouble staying asleep at night and cried when her parents dropped her off at preschool. When her parents asked a psychologist for help, he offered a surprising diagnosis: Lucy is one of a growing number of American children stressed out by the recession.

“Kids are very intuitive, they see what’s going on,” says J. David Carr, a psychologist at a wealthy public school in New York’s West Village. “When the economy is bad, a lot of things go wrong, and one of them is that children become more emotional.”

Of course, it’s not that kids are worried about the future of Wall Street; they’re just soaking up the tension around them. They see grim-faced anchors on television and overhear conversations about foreclosures. Their parents, worried about jobs and money, have less patience for them and many are fighting more with each other. And if one parent loses a job and the nanny is laid off, kids find themselves stuck at home with a new routine and a reluctant caretaker.

In Lucy’s case, conditions at home hadn’t changed that much. Unlike some of her peers, Lucy didn’t have to move due to foreclosure and her father was still employed. But his company was financially squeezed and he worried about his job. When he spent more time at work, Lucy’s mother found herself worn out by childcare duties. The stress weighed on everyone, and Lucy’s parents fought more with each other and became more irritable with their children.

“Parents are very fearful that their security is gone. They don’t always think about the kid being in the next room and talk openly,” says David Swanson, Psy.D., a children’s therapist and author of Help, My Kid Is Driving Me Crazy. “The kids hear their parents and freak out.”

There haven’t been many studies done yet to measure the impact of the current recession on children’s mental health, but one national poll released in July by the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital at the University of Michigan shows clear results: 40% of parents with kids aged 5-17 said their children were stressed by the recession. The likelihood of stress was highest among poor families, but even among those making more than $100,000, a hefty 25% reported that their children were stressed. Carr says referrals to him by teachers have jumped 10%-15% in the past year – and these are only the very egregious cases teachers weren’t able to deal with alone.

Without a doubt, the main way children soak up financial stress is through their parents. Deterioration in parental behaviour spans a wide range, from more irritability over spilled juice to outright beatings. Hospitals around the country say the number of children brought in with signs of physical abuse has soared over the past year, sometimes by as much as 30%.

Older children also absorb a lot of stress away from home. Hearing about lay-offs on the news might make them wonder if their parents are going to be fired. If a school mate loses his home or has to move to another school, children worry if the same is about to happen to them.

“A lot of times kids come to me with stuff they’ve heard on the news and in school, which was not thought through for an anxious child,” says Tamar Chansky, Ph.D., who runs the Children’s Center for OCD and Anxiety outside of Philadelphia. “They’re terrified. They don’t have the perspective to take news in context.”

Of course, anxiety becomes a much more serious problem if the child is directly affected by the recession.

Luke, a seven-year-old boy from Chicago’s wealthy North Shore area, had to change schools earlier this year when his parents lost their home in a foreclosure. The change in living standard wasn’t dramatic. “They went from living in a very impressive house to a nice house,” says his therapist. Still, Luke had trouble making friends at the new school, began having nightmares and crying more than usual. When his parents took him to see a therapist, it became clear that he felt scared and unsafe. “He didn’t know how permanent his new life was going to be.”

It’s tempting to dismiss the suffering of children who are pretty wealthy compared to those whose parents were barely surviving on minimum wage and then get laid off. But when wealthy children, even middle class children, have been shielded their whole lives from trauma and sacrifice, as much of this generation has, the recession can cause serious angst.

“Parental fighting is parental fighting,” says Swanson. “It’s very upsetting to kids.”

During the school years, children are also more affected by changes in the family’s spending habits, especially if that means no more music classes on Saturdays or no movies at the mall. Tweens and teenagers, meanwhile, are often devastated by drops in income because their social standing is so closely tied up with the price of their jeans and the gadgets they own.

Not surprisingly, wealthy children often respond to their family’s money problems with anger. Some even steal money from their parents in a desperate attempt to regain some of their financial standing.

“Kids are feeling more slighted, they say it’s not fair.” says Joanna Ball, Ph.D., a children’s psychologist who sees well-off kids at a private practice in a wealthy New York suburb and poor inner city kids at the Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx. “Poorer kids are more used to having to sacrifice. The recession is a different type of an adjustment for wealthier children.”

Older kids are likelier to suffer from depression. The way children express their anxiety varies wildly depending on age and temperament, but nightmares and refusal to go to school – out of fear that something bad might happen at home while they are gone – are often part of the mix. In children under five, regression – thumb-sucking, toilet accidents, separation anxiety – is common, and children are likely to become clingy.

Older kids are likelier to suffer from depression, which manifests itself in different ways. Introverted children who are depressed sleep a lot and withdraw from others, in an attempt to hide or even suppress their feelings. Extroverted children are more likely to act out, by fighting with peers, defying their caretakers or simply behaving erratically – destroying favorite toys, for example. Stress symptoms in extroverted children are often brushed off as attempts to win attention, or worse, misdiagonesd as ADHD, says Carr.

“Children know that adults generally help them feel better, so they might seek out those interactions with adults, even if they’re negative interactions,” says Carr.

The good news in all of this is at the recession isn’t going to last forever, and that these years offer parents a good chance to teach their children important values: that self-worth doesn’t come from material possessions and that it’s important to empathize with those with less money. The bad news is that the stress children experience now might haunt them for the rest of their lives.

Bruce Rabin, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh and an expert on stress, says repeated bouts of stress before the age of seven can permanently damage cells in the brain’s hippocampi, causing children to become more prone to depression and anxiety as adults. In addition, frequent stress during childhood makes them more susceptible to it later in life.

That’s why it’s so important for parents and caregivers to offer comfort and stability amid the turmoil. That doesn’t mean hiding the truth from kids, but it does mean dispensing information thoughtfully and finding a way to release stress before walking through the door at the end of a rough day.

“Imagine being on a plane and experiencing violent turbulence – not knowing if this is normal or not, you look to the flight attendant,” says Swanson. “This is what it is like for our children during times of financial stress. They may not understand the cause for the financial turbulence. But they need to feel secure that the plane isn’t going down.”

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