On Communicating with Your Children in Times of Stress

A Conversation With Jane



Good Evening.  Thank you for taking the time to be here tonight.  And I’d also like to thank you for being here with us at Park West this year.  There are many wonderful schools and we are gratified that you would choose Park West for your child and family.


Every year I give a talk at the Fall General Meeting.  Tonight I continue that tradition.  I’d like to speak with you about how to protect children from the stress on families in these days of such uncertainty, especially the financial uncertainty faced by so many.


Thinking about this topic brought me back a bit to my talk after the 9/11 attacks in 2001.  Everyone in the country was under tremendous stress, dealing with something as unfamiliar as terrorist attacks, as well as the subsequent feelings of powerlessness and worry about the future and what it might bring.  Those feelings were so intense and exhausting. The attacks became a seminal moment in our nation’s history and in the lives of most Americans. That year I spoke with parents about how to help children feel safe.


Our current economic crisis can bring those same feelings of stress, in fact, for many of us, these current stress levels may be even higher.  When one has been through a trauma, and I think we can characterize 9/11 as a national trauma, subsequent traumatic events hit us harder.  It is as if the pump has been primed.  We feel the 2nd event more quickly and more severely and one can go into panic mode much more readily.


Many have been deeply impacted by the changes in our economy.  It is a scary place to be, maybe facing a new kind of uncertainty.  Many families are faced with some tough decisions about the poor housing market, the downsizing of jobs, the loss of savings and assets.  It can feel very overwhelming and not what families had wanted, expected, or counted on.  It can be difficult to realize that there might not be an easy answer or fast solution.  Families are analyzing their choices, trying to decipher what will happen next and respond in the best interests of their own family. Obviously I don’t have the answers about this complicated issue.  I don’t know if the market will rebound or if our homes will regain the value they once had.  These are troubling times.


Some families are stretched to the limit due to the economy.  Other families may be just fine for now but do worry about what may happen in the future, wondering how will I provide for my family in this financial crunch?  I know all of us, as parents, do try to protect our children from the stress we adults feel and are dealing with. So how do we keep our anxieties from spilling over to our children?  How do we shield them from the uncertainty we may be feeling?  Because shield them we must.  Young children need to know that the adults in their lives will keep them safe.  Young children need to know that their parents will always be there and will take care of everything.


For this is a time when children will pick up on the anxieties their parents are feeling.  Children won’t be able to understand, analyze, or articulate what worries parents have, but children will feel them.  No matter how much we try to protect children from feeling our stress, they do pick up on it, even if we never discuss this in front of them.  They can read our faces, our body language and our parental short hand or code between parents. So how can we prevent our worries from trickling down to our children?


First parents need to be observant of their own behaviors.  You need to notice your tone of voice, if you seem more lost in thought, if you are maybe a bit more short tempered.  Are you able to spend the amount of time with your child as you have in the past? So do some reflection on your behavior, your demeanor, your attitude because children will pick up on even subtle changes.


Next, do not discuss or share your worries about the economy in general or for your own family in particular in front of your children.  It may seem as though they are not paying attention but we know that they are.  You may try to reassure yourself that children don’t understand the topic or vocabulary you are using, but they will pick up on your worry and tension.  They know how your voice sounds when you are worried, they know how your voice sounds when you are upset, and they know how your voice sounds when you are angry.


Parents need to realize that young children can assume this heightened emotion is their fault because young children don’t have other vantage points due to their egocentrism and their stage of development.  Children may then worry about what they are doing to make you upset.  Try being comfortable offering an acknowledgement of or an apology for your changed behavior.  It can be very helpful for children to have a parent offer an explanation.  I’m sorry I was short tempered.  I guess I’m in sort of a bad mood today.  Stress can lower our frustration levels.  This can make any of us more irritable or snappish.  Children will notice these kinds of behaviors.


If the changes for your family are dramatic, a move to downsize your home,  a parent at home due to a lay off, a parent who had stayed at home now working outside the home, or maybe a parent now traveling for a new job, you need to address this with your child.  You need to frame it in a way that acknowledges the change while still taking the emotional burden off of your child.


Before you speak about the changes at your house, think about what you will say.  What language will you use?  Keep in mind that one can use all the right words and still convey anxiety,  So your language, demeanor, and tone of voice could sabotage what you are trying to accomplish- acknowledging the changes for your child in a way that makes sense to your child while still being reassuring.  It can be very helpful to consider in advance what you will say to your child.  What words to use, the appropriate time to talk, and so on. This planning can prevent you from floundering around for what to say and can also help you feel more self confident.


Do not assume that your child will attach the same significance to the situation that you do.  If your child has a question really listen and then respond only to the question asked.  For you consultants out there, you will recognize this as not widening the scope.  Depending on the circumstances at your house, some news may feel like a non-event to your child. Don’t turn your child’s lack of awareness or concern into a problem.  For some of you this means you need not ‘have a talk’ with your child due to the minimal impact on your family. If you decide the changes at your house warrant a conversation with your child, I would be happy to speak with you to help you create a game plan and script.


There are a few more things to consider. When you speak about the changes at your house, be brief and reassuring.  You may say something like, Dad and I have decided now is a good time for us to save some money, so for a while things will be a little different.  For instance if you are not taking the elaborate trip you usually do, you might add, this year we’re staying at home, but we’re going to play here and explore Chicago, or visit Grandma.  We will still have fun.


Children will not be able to predict that what is currently happening can have boundaries. They will need your help understanding the changes that are temporary – if these changes are temporary for your family. I know we haven’t played together as much as we like to, I need to spend more time at my new job right now..  But soon I will have more time again.



If a move will be required, you’ll need to address that as well.  Something like:  We’ve decide to move to another house.  It will be different but exciting.  Remember that in general, children do not like change.  They cannot predict how that will look or what will change, or what will remain the same.  You will need to help your child understand the specifics.  Yes, your bed and all your toys will go to the new house.  You will need to exude confidence and be reassuring. about a move or any changes for your child.


You need to let your child know that well, some things may be changing, but really you don’t have to worry about that.  This is something the grownups are taking care of.  For that is what children want to know and be reassured about – that their parents are in charge and will always keep their children safe and cared for.  That parents, in fact, are taking care of everything.  Young children don’t need grey area.  They don’t need hedging.  They just want to know that everything is ok, even if you as a parent are worried or wondering how will we make every thing ok.



In times of stress everyone needs reassurance. One way to be reassuring to your children is to spend time with them.  Spending time together, going for a walk, making a salad together, watching a video together, or maybe playing school together, is a way to soothe your child and really your self.


This summer the 1st floor classroom here at school changed dramatically – new flooring and new wall color both vivid and rather bold. The room does seem fresher and cheery but we suffered a loss with those new changes – our 2 story playhouse was moved and ultimately fell apart.  So we have started the school year without a play house in that class.  It is a disappointment to teachers, children, and parents.  This was a set back but we can view it another way, if we let ourselves.  We can see this an opportunity.  We now have the opportunity to build a new playhouse.  We can work with an architect and make a plan together.  We have an opportunity to try something different.


I understand that today’s economic challenges are vastly more complicated and severe, with far greater implications than the loss of our little playhouse, but maybe we can see past the difficulties to the opportunity it may present.  I know it is a burden to be under such stress and worry but maybe it is also a time for valuable self reflection.  A time for us all to examine our lives, what do I want for myself in the future?  What do I want for my family?  How do I really want us to live?  This could a time to really think through our values and what are the important pieces of our lives.


Though I can’t predict what the market will do tomorrow, I do have confidence in all of you to use this time to look for the opportunities. You may need to make some changes, maybe bigger than you’d like, that may be the reality, and it might not be easy, but you will do your best to figure out what changes, how that will look, and what will be the best decisions for your child and family.


Maybe this will be a chance for some of us to re-invent ourselves, to re-evaluate what we want for ourselves and our families, to make new choices, to choose a different direction, and maybe to set a new course. You are up to the challenge, so take a deep breath and move forward.


Thank you for being with us tonight.