UC Davis experts propose strategies to ease family pressures amid economic turmoil

Photo of Dr. McCarthy © 2009 UC Regents
Malia McCarthy, program director of the UC Davis Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Training Program

As workers struggle in today's sinking economy, their battles to stay afloat are spreading to the home front. Parents who once spent their free time with their children are now plotting ways to save their mortgages, find new jobs or stretch limited budgets to pay mounting bills. The additional stress can worsen existing problems, such as depression and substance abuse, making the children the latest victims of the nation's financial turmoil.

"Children's mental health is very much a function of their environments — their communities, schools and families. So what happens in the larger society tends to have repercussions on kids," says Malia McCarthy, program director of the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Training Program at UC Davis.

Unfamiliar surroundings

During this economic downturn, evictions and home foreclosures have been particularly common. That means children are being uprooted from familiar home and school surroundings at an unusually high rate.

"Children get plucked not only from their former schools and all the supports available to them there, but also their local support systems of friends, neighbors, clergy, coaches, etcetera. And some move to areas that may be more dangerous than their previous situations, which exacerbates the stress," McCarthy says.

Photo of Dr. Urquiza © 2009 UC Regents
Anthony J. Urquiza, director of mental health services for the UC Davis Children's Hospital CAARE

For those already grappling with domestic problems, economic woes can strain family bonds to the breaking point, says Anthony J. Urquiza, director of mental health services for the UC Davis Children's Hospital CAARE (Child and Adolescent Abuse Resources and Evaluation) Center.

"They don't have a lot of coping resources to start out with. When you increase the amount of distress in these families, it can increase the amount of domestic violence and drug and alcohol abuse." In the face of so many pressing concerns, children's emotional needs — for love, attention, and reassurance — can easily fall through the cracks. "Parents can become so preoccupied meeting basic material needs for their families that they can lose sight of how critical their emotional resources are to their children," McCarthy says.

Unhealthy cycle

Over time, an unhealthy cycle develops. Children in crisis require parental help and attention. Their parents are juggling extra jobs to make ends meet and have less time to spend with their families. And previous opportunities for children to interact with adults, such as youth after-school or sports programs, are becoming luxuries fewer communities and families can afford.

Left unaddressed, stresses at home can lead children to misbehave as a way of getting their emotional needs met.


• American Academy of Adolescent and Child Psychiatry

• Child Protective Services, Sacramento County

• CPS 24-Hour Child Abuse Hotline:
(916) 875-5437 (875-KIDS)

• The 24-Hour Parent Support Hotline:
Sponsored by "The Effort," which provides child and family therapy, crisis intervention, child abuse prevention and other health and social services. (888) 281-3000

"Sometimes kids with behavioral difficulties," McCarthy says "can be acting out a symptom of the entire family's inability to function."

Fortunately, families have within their reach a few simple steps to alleviate some of the stress in the home.

Relieving tension

"Communicate with your partner about what's going on," Urquiza says. "There is a lot of benefit to being able to discuss with someone else how you're feeling. You might not find a solution every time, but saying the words and having somebody recognize your situation can alleviate some of your pain."

Don't be shy about reaching out to family and friends for assistance. Many are quite willing to lend a hand. Whether that means asking a neighbor to watch the children for an afternoon, or dropping the kids off at a relative's for the weekend, the respite can give harried parents a chance to visit the doctor, run errands, or take a break. Church and social groups may also be willing to volunteer their time and care.

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Even something as basic as taking a walk together can ease family tensions.

"It gives parents and children a chance to be together and not be disturbed by the phone ringing and the TV blaring. Exercise is a natural antidepressant – it helps with anxiety and provides a sense of well being. And it's completely free," McCarthy says.

Cooking and eating a meal as a family can be equally rewarding. In a society where busy family members often eat alone and on the go, breaking bread together can build a sense of cooperation and provide a healthy source of nutrition, too.

Even so, says Urquiza, it's easy for parents to become too engrossed with daily battles to notice they have altered their behavior toward their children.

"If you find yourself yelling and screaming, hitting your kids, or fighting or arguing too much with your partner, that is a sign you may need some additional help."

For those who feel they need more support than friends and family can offer, Urquiza suggests contacting county Child Protective Services for assistance.

"They don't want to take your kids away. They want to help your kids be safe. Removing kids is a relatively small portion of what they do. They're much more involved in trying to help families stay together."