How the Recession Has Affected Your Kids in an Unexpected Way

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Kids live out their parents' financial stresses, according to a new study. That is, your money problems today could hurt them tomorrow.

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If you think you and your spouse are the only ones affected by the harsh economic times -- and that your kids are blissfully immune -- think again. Kids, for better and for worse, are a lot more intuitive than we like to admit. Now, a new study demonstrates a cascade of effects set in motion by the economic climate: It begins with the monetary stresses of the parents and ends, several steps away, with the kindness that children express to their peers and family.

In the new research, a team queried parents about certain factors like "money-related chronic stress," depressive symptoms, and how connected they felt to their children (in this last measure, parents ranked themselves on statements like "I feel close to my child," "I am able to relate to my child," and "I feel understood by my child"). Most of the participants were college-educated, middle- to upper-class white families.

Economic stress is linked to depression, which is linked to poorer parent-child relationships, which is linked to fewer pro-social behaviors.

A year later the parents were surveyed again. And so were their kids.

The more stressed the parents were about money, the more likely they (the parents) were to be depressed. Not a surprising finding. But parental depression also affected the strength of the relationships between the parents and their kids: Parents who experienced more depressive symptoms were less connected to their children -- and this was true based on reports from both the parents and the kids.

But the most revealing connection was one between the intimacy of the parent-child relationships and the "pro-social behavior" of the kids. The children, between the ages of 10 and 14 when the study began, were polled on how they felt about reaching out to friends, family, and strangers. They ranked themselves on statements like "I help others even if it's not easy for me," "I volunteer in programs to help others in need," and "I really enjoy doing small favors for my family." Kids who had less-connected relationships with their parents were less likely to exhibit these pro-social behaviors than kids who enjoyed stronger relationships with their parents.

The chain of events goes like this: Economic stress is closely linked to parental depression, which is closely linked to poorer parent-child relationships, which is closely linked to fewer pro-social behaviors in kids.

While earlier studies have looked at the effects of the economy on kids' psyches, they have typically considered only the development of negative behaviors, like substance abuse, mental illness, aggression, and other "problem behaviors." The idea that the economy could, through indirect means, cause a shift or decline in kids' positive social behaviors has not been illustrated until now.

Also interesting is that the study's participants are the people who would typically be considered the most resistant to economic stress. Author Gustavo Carlo says that "a unique aspect of this study is the focus on middle, upper-middle-class families. Most other studies looked at high-risk families (low socioeconomic status, ethnic minorities, rural farm families during the Farm Crisis years)."

Note that this study was just getting underway when the economic crisis began. Carlo suggests that "one would expect that under more dire circumstances the effects could be stronger and more deleterious. Data collection began in 2007, just as the economy was hitting its worst cycle and the outcomes were examined in 2008." The cascade of events that lead from parental depression to a shift in pro-social behaviors exhibited by children is likely present in both good times and bad, but would be more pronounced in times of extreme financial stress.

It would be interesting to repeat the study today and see how the current economic climate might affect the relationships found here. The obvious question, since parents are apparently not so good at hiding their stressors and depressed moods from their children, is, how can we make sure to not transmit our own woes (economic or otherwise) onto our kids?

Since kids are so perceptive -- and sponge-like -- managing the problem rather than masking it is probably the way to go, says Carlo, who recommends becoming aware of the issue first and then taking steps to get support, both psychological and economic. "Parents may need to seek support from relatives (including any available spouse or partner), school counselors, therapists, friends, or others," he says. "Of course, seeking help to address the root issue (economic difficulties) has to be part of the long-term solution. Once parents have begun to address the stress and emotional issues, then they need to focus on their relationships with their teens and to provide the support they need."

Given all the stressors in tweens' and teens' lives, it's important to be sensitive to the extra stresses we unintentionally add. "We know how challenging it is to be a parent and this adds a layer to that challenge," Carlo says. "The responses have to be holistic and this is why professional help is usually a good approach whenever possible."

Image: Nailia Schwarz/Shutterstock.

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Alice G. Walton, PhD, is a health journalist and an editor at The Doctor Will See You Now.

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