Check Your Stress at the Door!

Keep financial and other woes off children's shoulders

Date June 17, 2009 at 10:00 PM

Categories Lodging & Travel


Have you been feeling extra tense the past few months? Most of us have, with the mounting financial pressures and dire economic news, including tales of suicides and murders among those who cannot cope. In these times, we need to be extra careful not to overexpose children to conditions beyond their understanding and control.

Shortly after 9/11, Ms. Jane, in her preschool, watched Billy build a block tower and then knock it over. He did it again and again. After school she asked Billy’s mother about it, and she replied that Billy was glued to the news of the 9/11 attacks. Ms. Jane gently suggested that she not let him watch the news, and that if she needed to see the news, to wait until the children were at school or in bed.

The same advice can be given during today’s period of economic crises—that we all keep our media-watching to a minimum. Our stress will be reduced if instead we count the abundance that we do have in our lives, things like the number of hugs and smiles we get each day from children, how many birds come to the bird feeder, or how fortunate we were to be able to make a cake for a birthday in the family. This may sound simplistic, but it truly helps.

If there is stress in your family, or in a friend’s home, due to a lay-off, higher grocery bills or harder-to-pay mortgage, no doubt you worry over it and discuss it. Children pick up these anxieties more than we may realize.

Three-year-old Maya is brushing her doll’s hair in front of cartoons on a Saturday morning. Her parents are arguing about the bills and her mother’s layoff. Maya begins sucking her thumb, and her father shouts at her not to do it: “You’re not a baby anymore!” Maya cries and runs to her room.

Anton, in Ms. Jane’s class, has begun to take toys away from the other children and shout at the other children and teachers, whereas he had always been eager to join in the activities. Anton's parents are in danger of losing their home to foreclosure, as they have both lost part-time jobs while holding onto their main jobs. They have told Anton that he’ll have to stop going to preschool.

Billy, Anton and Maya are all showing symptoms of stress. Other symptoms can include becoming silent, bedwetting, a new fear of being alone at night, or fear that the “bad thing” will return or hasn’t gone away. This last one happens especially when the parents worry or argue in front of the children or yell at the bill collector over the phone. Keep in mind that when children see the same news over and over, they may not realize it is repeat footage of a national or international crisis. In young children’s minds, they believe that the bad news is happening again in reality.

As well as not letting the children witness the difficult news on television or overhear stressful family discussions, it is important for parents to reassure their preschooler that the family will be together no matter what, and that the child is loved and cared for. This isn’t to gloss over real problems. What the young child needs to hear is not the details but that the parents will find a way to always give the preschooler time for love, and that the problems will be fixed somehow.

When a world is stressed, not just a family, it becomes harder to find support as funds fall in a domino effect. Anton and his parents need for him to stay in school, both for the child’s sense of continuity and security and his parents’ need to find extra work or job-training. After talking with Anton’s parents, Ms. Jane helped them switch to a Children, Youth and Families Department (CYFD)-assisted program that would allow Anton to stay in preschool with his friends (see box on page 11). Two other children in the school had to leave, but their parents have worked out a mutual childcare arrangement.

At a neighborhood meeting, Ms. Jane met Mrs. Martinez, a kindly great-grandmother whose daughters were begging her to not care for another great-grandchild, a toddler. “But my hita needs to work and can’t afford daycare!” Mrs. Martinez said. Ms. Jane suggested that she go to CYFD and sign up as a family caregiver, to earn money for taking care of her grandbabies. This is indeed a way for families to come together to help one another as formal daycare becomes unaffordable. There is always a high need for infant and toddler providers, as well as for weekend and evening care for children whose parents work outside traditional hours.

Other help is out there for families. More families are taking advantage of free or low-cost school breakfasts. More children have been reported coming to school hungry, tired and even unwashed as families lose their homes and live in motels, shelters and tents. Other more fortunate families and community organizations are helping as best they can. If a beloved family pet has to be let go because of loss of a home or money to feed it, perhaps a more fortunate friend, neighbor or family can take the pet in temporarily, allowing the young children to visit.

Sometimes financial stress is inevitable, but here are some other things we can do to mitigate the impact on our children.

Borrow toys: Did you know that Santa Fe Community College (6401 Richards Avenue, 505-428-1703), the UNM-Taos Family Resource Center (1335 Gusdorf  Road, 575-758-1395) and Los Alamos Family Strengths Network (1990 Diamond Drive, 505-662-4515) all have toy lending libraries, where children, parents and childcare providers can check out toys, books, games, puzzles and equipment? Adults also can attend childcare classes, borrow books on childcare and development and seek advice. If you live outside these communities, ask in your child’s day care or preschool if your town has such a facility.

Use your public library: Libraries are a great resource, not only for borrowing books but also for storytelling, Internet access, videos, books-on-tape or CD, and community resource information. Regular trips to the library can become great family outings. Jorge’s family loves movies, so his mom decided to have a weekly at-home movie night with DVDs they borrow from the library. The children help Mom make cookies and popcorn.

Save together: Maya’s older brother Pablo  suggested that they make a bank to save money for family treats. Maya helped Pablo decorate an old jar. When it fills up the family goes out for hamburgers or ice cream. Maya’s grandfather tells of when his father was a little boy in the Great Depression. His grandmother, who cut ladies’ hair, would save a quarter now and then from her tips and take him and his sister out for chili or burritos and a movie. They would sing walking to and from the Plaza.

Garden: Anton’s parents, copying the new vegetable garden at the White House, have started planting their own garden, exchanging seeds with neighbors. Anton loves to dig in the garden as much as he loves the sandbox at school. He hears his mother humming now as she cooks their beans, corn and tomatoes.

Swap: Ms. Jane has set up an exchange corner in the preschool, where families can bring in outgrown clothes, DVDs, toys and other used items. It is very popular. Jorge’s oldest sister Gabriella found the perfect shoes for her prom dress there!

And more: There are so many free family things to do and ways we can help one another through our tough times. Don’t forget the parks and trails, not to mention low-cost times at the swimming pools and gyms. And, the thing that costs nothing at all is at least 30 minutes a day with your child, reading to him, playing with her and giving lots of hugs. This will reassure and calm both of you.

Judith Nasse is a writer and consultant in early childhood education who lives in Taos.

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