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Family Stresses

by William R. Beardslee, MD and Susan Linn, EdD

All families go through hard times. As parents, we may struggle to cope with stresses ranging from money worries and job changes to marital difficulties and illness. Talking with our children about these problems may seem like an insurmountable hurdle, but keeping silent may inadvertently cause them harm.

Children -- even very young children -- are acutely sensitive to the nuances of their parents' tension and well-being. Family silence around stress can cause children to shoulder unnecessary burdens of shame and guilt. Talking with them is an important first step toward helping them gain important coping skills.

Even when families are faced with the most overwhelming life stress, parents can help children. Try these approaches:

  • Acknowledge the stress. It's helpful for children, as well as adults, to be reassured that what they are experiencing is real.

  • Depending on their ages, conversations with children can range from talking generally about the source of stress, such as worries about work, or going into more detail about it. How much we share with our children will depend on their age, their interests and our own needs for privacy. In general, young children probably need less detail than older children.

  • Leave the door open for ongoing conversation. Children understand events differently over time, and their capacity for grasping complicated issues develops as they mature. As they grow and change, we and our children will probably revisit crises such as death, illness, or divorce several times as they grow and change.

  • Be as concrete and specific as possible about events they have witnessed. Have we or our spouse been unusually preoccupied, irritable or even absent recently? "You've probably noticed that Daddy and I were arguing last night," or "You've probably noticed that I've been sad recently," are good ways to begin.

  • Prevent unnecessary guilt by making sure children know that our irritability or preoccupation is because of something going on in our life, not because of them.

  • Encourage relationships with other trusted adults and friends. A favorite aunt, teacher, babysitter or neighbor can be a great source of comfort and support for a child whose parents are temporarily unavailable.

  • Be open with children about the ways we seek, and obtain, assistance for our problems, including going to a therapist. In doing so, we model an important coping strategy -- recognizing the need for help and obtaining it.
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