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Keeping Your Family Calm When Money's Tight

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Erik Fisher, PhD: Fear. It's the four-letter word that infiltrates our families, our job market and even our economy. And while few of us enjoy fear, it's actually a very powerful and beneficial emotion. Why? Because fear shows us that we need protection, and it outlines a coming threat (be it real or imagined). The challenge with fear is knowing when it's necessary -- and what to do when we feel it. The most common fear these days? Well, if you're the average American, it probably has something to do with money.

Today, many parents and families are now facing the consequences of overspending -- and not just on necessary household items or fun luxuries, but on monthly bills. Many people aren't seeing a way out of their financial mess, and the light at the end of the tunnel looks very dim. How are these challenging times affecting you and your children?

The Progression of Fear
When I talk about fear and problem-solving with people, I talk about a progression from logic to terror. We often start by thoughtfully processing an issue, but that can move to concern, then to worry, then to fear, then to panic, and finally to terror. Concern is more of a logical fear that helps us to realize that we have some problems to solve. Worry often results in us spinning our wheels. Once we progress to panic, we seldom accomplish our goals -- let alone anything else. Often, the best strategy we can use to deal with fear is to logically look at our options and, if we can't see a way out, to get some help from someone who can.

In today's challenging economic times, you may need to consider getting help from experienced friends or professionals when it comes to working your way out of debt, enhancing your resume or exploring the job market. Keeping our problems to ourselves seldom helps us succeed or learn. What would you want your kids to do if they were getting a failing grade in school?

Setting the Stage for Life
As a parent, you set the stage for your children, and the manner in which you respond to issues models to them how to address emotion. With our current economy, it's easy to fall into panic mode, spending time talking about bills and pinching pennies, losing your temper with your kids and feeling tense about everything from the lights being left on to the amount of lunch money your kids need. But all of the worry and panic in the world will not help you do your job better, and it will not bring the cost of gas down. Furthermore, the way you respond to these situations with your kids will leave a lasting impression on their still-developing minds. 

To help your children grow through these financially lean times with you, educate them about money and its value through a series of teachable moments. Here are some ways to do that:

1) Give them an allowance (even if it's very little) and teach them how to budget their money. If they want things that cost money, they are old enough to earn a little and learn how to spend it.
2) Talk to them about what you've learned about spending and saving. If you spent too much and have to pay back debt and/or want to teach them about saving and interest, explain these concepts using raisins, pennies or other items that they can see and touch. Remember: You are teaching them how to prepare for and navigate through life.
3)Don't blame your kids for your stresses and/or financial problems. Let them know that they will have to be careful about spending to be a part of the team, and explain the solution. If they are complaining about what they want or don't have, then consider what you may have taught them in the past without realizing it.
4) Let your kids know (and also keep in mind yourself) that the economy is cyclical, and that things will come back around. It will take work, sacrifice and patience on everyone's part to work through this period. Learn what you can from it so it doesn't happen to you or your kids again. Habits are hard to change, so help your kids create healthy ones.
5) Reinforce the idea that you're a team. No matter what happens, you all still love each other very much, and you can learn how a team works together.
6) Discuss the fact that times like these teach us what's really important. Let them know that it's not things that bring us happiness, and that sometimes it takes hardship to remind us of that.

Many parents think that teaching their kids to fear the worst will keep them from experiencing it. This is not the case. Either they'll grow up feeling afraid to live life, or they'll grow up to deny that hardships are happening because they believe that acknowledging fear is a weakness. Remember: Fear is a healthy emotion if it's balanced. Finding that balance is the tough part -- but it's not impossible.

Erik Fisher, PhD, a.k.a. Dr. E., is a licensed psychologist and author who has been featured on NBC, CBS, FOX and CNN. Visit him at to learn more about his books "The Art of Empowered Parenting" and "The Art of Managing Everyday Conflict," or to check out his blog.


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