Debt and your child’s happiness
The holidays are over, it’s cold outside, and the bills are coming in. For whatever reason, you find yourself in debt. Huge debt, in some cases. It turns out that when it comes to your child’s happiness, it doesn’t matter HOW you got into debt. Your emotional response is what can leave long-lasting scars.
Something I see quite often as a child psychiatrist is that parents often respond to debt in an emotional manner, and this has a significant impact on children.
For some parents, denial is a misguided attempt to shield their children, to protect them from the hardship of debt, in essence, to keep them “happy.” The problem is denial can lead to continued unwise spending, and worse, increase risk of calls from bill collectors, automobile repossessions, evictions or foreclosure, all of which put children in jeopardy. This response is probably the one that is most dangerous to your child, as he or she does not have the tools to cope with homelessness, or even with losing the family car.
Parents who become stressed or angry are not in denial, and will most likely protect their children from financial harm by curbing their spending. However, stress can affect many areas of your life. When parents are stressed, they worry, they either over eat or stop eating, they have trouble sleeping. Stress compromises your immune system, and sickness leads to more debt. All of these can negatively impact how you relate to your child, causing you to lose patience, and ignore precious moments of his or her childhood.
You can become angry at yourself for getting into debt, which your child will easily perceive as anger at her for being a burden. After all, didn’t you get into debt because you bought all those presents? Some parents express anger at their boss, at extended family, at creditors, landlords. This just teaches your child that you are not responsible for your behavior, as well as giving him a dark, and inaccurate view of the world. If anger is allowed to grow, it can lead to impulsively violent or illegal behavior. Debt related anger often leads to emotional or physical child abuse.
Prolonged stress or anger can lead to depression. This is a serious problem you should do your best to avoid. If you find yourself depressed, you must get help. Parents who are depressed find themselves doing things like staying in bed all day, or staying awake all night. Depression can cause you to express feelings of hopelessness to your child, robbing him of that magical thinking which is an important part of his childhood. Most children do not have the skills needed to cope with a parent crying all day long. Depression can lead to alcohol, substance abuse, or worse, suicide, which has the potential to destroy your child’s world.
So, how do you keep debt from ruining your child’s happiness?
First, remind yourself EVERY DAY: you are NOT your debt. Your debt is either the result of an error in judgement on your part, or it is due to something out of your control, like job loss. But, it does not define you. Make a list of the things that do define you, that make you unique.
Every day, your children should see you expressing gratitude for the goodness you see in your life. Do it several times a day. Ask them what they are grateful for. Let them know CONSTANTLY that you are grateful for their presence in your life. It will be another way to keep you from defining yourself by your debt.
It’s okay to talk about your debt, only talk about it the way you talk about the weather. This is hoping you aren’t one of these people who get mad at a winter storm. Involve your children in age-appropriate debt reducing activities, such as coupon clipping, choosing between two brands of a product at the store, helping with meal menus, or creating a budget. This teaches your child (and you) that financial stress is part of life, and that it has solutions.
Don’t isolate yourself or your family. Seek out church or community activities that do not involve spending money. This is an ideal time for you and your family to volunteer. Helping someone in need teaches your child the very important lesson that every one has value, and everyone has something to offer, no matter what.
Create a routine that is full of the activities that do not involve spending money, such as doing chores together, reading bed time stories, cooking and eating meals together. For example, if you’re unemployed, have a schedule planned for after school that involves help with homework, play time, meal time and a bed time routine. It will keep you from dwelling on your debt, and will enhance your child’s feeling of security.
If you find yourself overwhelmed by debt, get support from places like Debtors Anonymous. Ask if your place of worship has classes in financial planning or debt management. Look for help on the Internet, but stay away from sites that charge you money. Debt.org offers valuable free tools and support to help you manage your debt. Huffington Post is a free blog site that has a money section with multiple articles on managing debt.
Dr. Micaela Wexler provides child, adolescent and adult pscyhiatric services in Kansas.
Please visit Wexler Family Psychiatry to schedule an appointment.
Logo Copyright Debby Bloom
Debt and your child’s happiness