Families Coping With Financial Downturn

Anything that does not kill me, makes me stronger – Nietzsche

Much has been written about how difficult 2009 has been for families in Ireland. The huge rises in unemployment are not just statistics. For every job lost there is an individual and a family who have experienced a huge personal loss and great stress.

Though there are claims that our economy may be turning the corner, 2010 could be even worse, even if simply the losses of 2009 take effect and people and their families try to adjust to living with less in the longer term.

Whatever its source, stress is one of the biggest negative impacts on families and on the welfare of children. Parental stress caused by traumatic events and personal loss has the potential to disrupt families and the lives of children in very negative ways. Unemployment and economic misery provides one of the greatest stresses. In a large longitudinal study in the UK, long-term family unemployment was found to be one of the greatest predictors of childhood misery and problems as they grew up. With this in mind it is crucial that we as a society address unemployment and support families who are suffering its effects. While it is important to focus on rebuilding the economy and maintaining and creating employment, it is also important to support families to help themselves.

In my work with families, I have always been aware that parental stress is the biggest factor in exacerbating problems and reducing positive family functioning. Far more significant than the problems themselves, is how parents respond to them and whether they are personally coping.

Sadly, some families can let the stress of problems drive a wedge between them and even tear them apart. For example, a father might lose his job and become depressed and withdrawn, the mother becomes angry and blames him for not contributing and he can become angry in return for her lack of support. From here they easily can become caught up in constant fights or disengagement from each other, with their children and family as a whole becoming casualties.

Many families, however, don’t go down this pathway and a significant number cope much more positively. In my work, I have always been impressed by families who don’t become overwhelmed by stressful events but instead allow it to become a vehicle to draw out the best in them and bring them closer together as a family. While there are many different reasons there are a couple of key things these families do differently.

First of all, resilient couples don’t blame each other for the problems and instead see the problem as something external to their relationship that they work together to overcome.

They don’t put any energy into criticising each other but instead ally together to creatively respond to the problem. In simple terms, they choose to fight the problem and not each other.

In my experience as a therapist with families, this decision to bind together against a problem (whether it is a parent’s unemployment, or a child’s behaviour problems) is the most crucial therapeutic decision and leads to positive change.

Allied together and choosing to support one another no matter what happens, families can cope with most challenges. As family therapist Gary Neuman puts it – resilient couples make a decision to fight for their relationship and to prioritise this over anything else.

Secondly, resilient couples keep communicating and supporting one another. Even though this is hard, they share difficult feelings (of fear, shame, loss, etc) and are available to listen to the other person to support rather than to judge or criticise.

When adversity strikes this is when the marriage commitment “for better or worse” is challenged. Rather than questioning the relationship, resilient couples do not waver from their commitment and put their energy into understanding their own and their partner’s feelings and then move to constructive action.

Thirdly, resilient couples are able to see a “silver lining” in their difficulties. No one would choose financial problems or unemployment but many can use some aspects of it to their advantage whether this is spending more time with the children, learning to cook meals and contribute at home, or learning a new hobby and skill.

Resilient couples continue to focus on their relationship and enjoy the simple things in life and this makes a big difference.

One of the biggest worries for parents dealing with this economic crisis is the impact on their children – they worry they won’t be able to provide for their children in the same way as before and that this will lead to them losing out.

While children can experience loss during economic problems, their sense of security in the family is far more important and this can be preserved. By making a decision to cope personally and to cope together as a couple, this gives children great security in the crisis and many of the other material losses are not as important. While it is easy to avoid talking, it really helps to have an honest and open conversation with your children about the difficulties (according to their age and understanding).

The key thing is to listen and to give them space to share their feelings and concerns while also giving them a clear message of coping such as “we are going through a hard time as a family, we will have to live with less, but that does not mean we can’t have as much fun and the important thing is that we are together as a family. We will overcome these problems together.”

Once they feel communicated to and included, children can be a source of support to parents as much as the other way round. One of the most moving aspects of my work has been to witness the resilience and love of children who can give back to their parents in special ways in times of adversity.

Coping as a family with the downturn
Make a decision to personally cope:People who cope best don’t take their misfortune personally and instead focus on how they can respond constructively to make the most of their new circumstances. Make a decision to take positive action.

Prioritise your family relationships:During adversity the temptation can be to cut off from your loved ones, the key is to make your loved ones central. Use the crisis as an opportunity to become closer together to each other. Make a decision to prioritise the simple things in your relationships (such as eating together, going for a walk or talking).

Cope together – fight the problem not each other:Don’t engage in blame games or let financial problems come between you as a couple or a family. See them as affecting you equally and work creatively together to deal with them.

Focus on the ‘silver linings’ in the situation:Many of the most enjoyable things in life are free or certainly low cost and this is where to put your energy. Ask yourself what are the new opportunities in the current crisis?

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newpaper, January 2010. John writes in The Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.