sealPurdue News

February 1, 2002

Families should keep communication open during tough times

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Talking to your children is the most important way to help them deal with changes going on during tough economic times, says a Purdue University expert on child development.

"Children may not understand the details, but they see their parents' stress," says Extension specialist Judy Myers-Walls. If parents don't talk, children can imagine the worst. When parents don't bring up the subject children think whatever is causing the stress is taboo or inappropriate to talk about.

"Change causes stress. The amount of stress depends, in part, on how much of a change happens," Myers-Walls says. The larger the difference between what is expected and what actually happens increases the amount of stress.

Sudden layoffs can be particularly upsetting. "If you had been on an upswing, it's more of a shock when the rug gets pulled out," she says.

Before parents talk to their kids, Myers-Walls says they should assess the situation and develop objectives. Parents should think about the reasons for the changes at home and how much they want to tell their children about the family's finances.

"Many parents may want to take a positive approach to the situation by saying 'This is a chance to try something new – it's time for a change anyway,'" she says.

Myers-Walls says the intensity of parent-child relationships sometimes makes it difficult to talk about painful situations. One of the most important things to tell children, she says, is what is going to change and what isn't going to change.

Identifying things that will stay the same may help children gain certainty in an uncertain situation. For instance, parents may tell their children the house rules will stay the same, but one thing that may change is that they will have to take their lunch instead of buy it. Parents also should assure children that the family will stay together.

The decision of how money should be used is different depending on the age of the children, Myers-Walls says. Older kids may be given choices, such as a cut in allowance or no cable television. "This helps older children feel they have more control," she says.

Students in late elementary school may be more concerned about having certain items so they still feel like they fit in with other children. Explaining why these changes are necessary can help children accept the changes, Myers-Walls says.

Here are some ways you can keep the channels of communication open:

  • Let teachers know what is going on at home and ask them to contact the parents if they notice any changes in a child's behavior.

  • Help children connect with other helpful adults. Sometimes they will feel more comfortable talking with someone outside the family.

  • Put caring notes in lunch boxes or on doors, beds or mirrors.

  • Make signs to hang on family members' bedroom doors describing how they are feeling that day. The signs can be as simple as paper plates with expressions drawn on them.

  • Decide on a verbal or non-verbal signal to say, "We need to stop and talk" when things get intense.

  • Do things you enjoy doing together – something that doesn't cost anything, like playing basketball.

  • Have regular family meeting times or parent-child "dates."

  • Talk to kids while driving. Kids often perceive conversation in the car as non-threatening and feel comfortable with the parent as a captive audience.

  • Older children could have written conversations with parents in a journal placed in a central place.

    For more information about talking to your family during times of transition, visit our web page and click on "Talking to your family."

    Writer: Theresa Lawton, (765) 494-8402,

    Source: Judy Myers-Walls, (765) 494-2959,

    Ag Communications: (765) 494-2722; Beth Forbes,;

    Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096;

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