From letting her hair down to pulling it out—economic stress trickling down to kids

Yesterday was about Rapunzel which (as well as witch) turns on the letting down of hair, while today we turn to a recent New York Times article about the effects of economic and family stress on children, including the case of a nine-year-old girl who, in reaction to her father’s unemployment, was “pulling out strands of her hair,” in behavior later diagnosed as a “stress-induced disorder.”  This is a window into the effects of stress, money worries and the impact of the economy on our kids, and it’s also a window into the workings of anxiety. 

The article states, “For many families across the country, the greatest damage inflicted by this recession has not necessarily been financial, but emotional and psychological.  Children, especially, have become hidden casualties, often absorbing more than their parents are fully aware of.  Several academic studies have linked parental job loss—especially that of fathers—to adverse impacts in areas like school performance and self-esteem.”  For full article see: http://tiny.cc/l35fo.

The main take-away points with regard to parenting is that even if there are some savings and the family seems to get by, when a father in particular is out of work it can be easy to miss, or deny, behavioral symptoms of stress in the children.  This can relate to parents feeling guilty, and it can also relate to unconscious parents inadvertently spilling their stress into the kids who are often the most vulnerable component in a family system.

The article spoke of a man who continued to get dressed and pretend to go to work for a while, the shame of being fired causing him to at first hide it from his family.  Yet kids are more or less psychic and they seem to know in their bones many things they do not consciously know in their brains.  This story reminded me of the pathos of the great F.W. Murnau silent film, The Last Laugh, about a proud hotel doorman demoted to washroom attendant who hides it from his family, wearing his old uniform to work and then changing into his demoted one.

While it is undoubtedly hard on our self-esteem to lose our jobs, often it is our shame that proves most debilitating to our children and ourselves.  Keep in mind, shame distills down to, “I did a bad thing, or had a bad consequence, not due to bad luck, or even to bad behavior, but rather to bad character.”  Once we think of ourselves as fundamentally flawed or “less than,” we get it all wrong—hurting our kids and ourselves.  Thus even when money is tight, if severe stress impacts the children, some family therapy (or, my preference, the grown-ups go, but in service of the kids) can be a wise use of resources and a non-shaming way to model talking about feelings and being a cohesive family through good times as well as more trying times. 

While in the family in the NY Times article the nine-year-old was hair pulling (which can indeed be a symptom of anxiety and potentially compulsive behavior), their twelve-year-old became increasingly irritable and prone to pitching regressive tantrums.  This too can signal anxiety, while irritability and oppositionality can also be symptoms of depression. 

Parents can become disengaged from kids for reasons ranging from being too busy with work to being too depressed due to lack of work; but either way, disengagement in parents correlates with lower self-esteem in kids.  Finding time to listen, be interested and help kids feel safe to talk about their fears and feelings is a great way to help them stay emotionally healthy.  While a tough economy is a terrible struggle for many of us these days, it’s important to find ways to see to the sacred and sacrosanct worth of all others— including that man or woman in the mirror.

Several studies have correlated job loss for the head of a household with a 15% increased likelihood for a child in that home having to repeat a grade.  The negative impacts on such kids were more associated with negative changes in family dynamics rather that economic issues themselves.  This suggests that while there are times when we cannot help what happens to us in the workplace, by somehow managing to be our best Selves at home we strongly protect our kids from adverse consequences.  This also means reducing parental conflict as a way to help children feel more secure.

Finally, the hair-pulling girl developed a strategy for storing her worries, particularly at bedtime, in an imagined box where she would lock them up.  The box is another variation on a theme I often employ—that of a bowl as a place to put things we don’t want, or cannot fully deal with or contain at the present moment.  Perhaps suggesting such a box or bowl for our anxious kids, and maybe picking one out for ourselves as well at the imagined store where no money need exchange hands, could be a helpful strategy.

So, let’s dedicate today to love and compassion for any and all parents who have lost jobs in this economic down-turn, as well as good wishes for tranquility and confidence for the myriad kids, our own and our neighbors’, living in the context of families which have been wounded and/or challenged by recent cutbacks and economic conditions.  And, of course, let’s do it in honor of all our collective children.

Namaste, Bruce

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One Response to “From letting her hair down to pulling it out—economic stress trickling down to kids”

  1. BigLittleWolf Says:

    I am the head of household and have been for many years. Was laid off 8 years ago after a 20 year corporate career, and it’s been a patchwork of contractor and freelance jobs, often more than one FT, simultaneously. And laid off from both, 13 months ago.

    There is mortification. There is withdrawal. There is being shunned by those who do still have work, for a variety of reasons.

    To spend your life as a breadwinner, and to find yourself “too old,” unmarketable, and still responsible for your family is – in this culture – devastating. Despite the fact that millions of people are going through it.

    To think that it doesn’t trickle down to our children in major ways – and we can’t possibly know all of them – is naive. Perhaps some are good; they know what it is to work hard, to earn every dollar, and to go without. They say what it takes to “get,” though many parents (myself included) go deeply into debt to keep giving, though we know at some point the house of cards will fall.

    With this going on for so many years now, my sons have learned to understand what is a “need” and what is a “want” – they don’t always like it, but they understand it.

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