INTELLIGENCER INTERVIEW, APRIL 8 2009
Layoffs, home foreclosures and the state of the economy are scary for adults, but reassuring kids they'll be cared for, no matter what, is vital, experts say.
For 4 1/2 hours every weeknight, there's no television and no BlackBerry use allowed in the Necowitz household. And for an hour each day, the Lower Makefield family enjoys silence - no talking allowed.
It's a way for Robin Kevles-Necowitz, her husband, Larry Necowitz, and their daughters, Arli and Zoe, to simplify their otherwise hectic lives.
And simplicity is crucial if parents are to keep calm and help their children cope with the almost daily onslaught of bad economic news, said Kevles-Necowitz, a parenting coach and founder of Parent Assist in Lower Makefield.
"It doesn't matter the age of the child; it matters the attitude of the parents," she said. "If the parents get clear, the child gets clear. If the parent says in a very calm and clear and neutral - neutral is the key - tone, 'There's going to be some changes, and this is why I think it's going to be good for us,' and you're not leaving a window of opportunity for doubt and concern and shame, kids respond to that."
Kevles-Necowitz and other experts who work with children and parents said parents must maintain a sense of stability for their children, even if they're facing economic troubles at home.
"Adults are very concerned, and are scared, and are obsessed with what's going on," said Dr. David Harwitz, a child and adolescent psychologist with the Center for Family Guidance in Evesham, Burlington County. "And that can be a very frightening situation for a child who relies on the important adults in his or her life to maintain safety and to impart a sense of security in their world. To start seeing cracks in that can be scary."
The first step is to determine how much your children can understand, Harwitz said.
Ask them what they've heard, and what they want to know about. Younger children won't understand broad economic terms, but older children might have more specific questions. That could turn the discussion into a valuable learning experience, he said.
"Don't overwhelm them," Harwitz said. "Try to convey a sense that, 'We're OK; you're going to be OK. We're going to be taking care of you. We're concerned and it happens sometimes, even grownups get scared sometimes, but it will be handled. We are safe, you are safe.' "
"It's like talking to your children about sex," said Marjorie Morgan of the Lenape Valley Foundation. "You give them the headlines of what they can understand at their developmental level, and wait to see if they have more questions. It's important to answer the questions honestly, but you don't need to go into more detail than is really necessary."
Children need to be reassured
Morgan, director of outpatient services at the nonprofit Doylestown counseling center, said no matter what their age, all children need to hear they'll be safe and taken care of.
"Even teenagers need that reassurance from their parents," she said. "I don't think there's any need, even with teenagers, to give them a course in Economics 101. But if they do have questions, answer them honestly."
A few months ago, Andrea Weiner's 10-year-old nephew ran into his house shouting, "Mom! Dad! The Dow is dropping!"
Weiner, a child and educational therapist from New Hope, said the boy had no idea what that meant. But just by overhearing adult conversations, the child panicked. After his father explained what the Dow was - and the fact that the family was safe - the child calmed down, Weiner said.
"Children have this incredible antenna," she said. "They will pick up on tones of voice, on facial expressions, and they'll pick up on those conversations they weren't supposed to hear. Left to their own imaginations, they'll fill in the blanks. If parents don't talk to them, they may interpret what's going on in the wrong way."
Weiner, author of "The Best Investment: Unlocking the Secrets of Social Success for Your Child," said parents should take the opportunity to teach their children valuable social and emotional skills to help them deal with any of life's situations, not just the economy.
"We have the ability to help these kids deal and cope better," she said. "If parents can make that investment, and teach these kids those emotional and social skills, that will be the greatest gift a parent can give a child right now."
That means talking to your children from a place that isn't a place a fear, Weiner said. Focus on what the children have - not what they don't have, or cannot have. Get them involved in planning low-cost or no-cost family outings instead of that big family vacation. If you're scared, tell your kids - and let them know it's OK, Weiner said.
When she was 11 years old, Weiner's father faced bankruptcy. Her parents sat down the children and explained what was happening.
"All I could visualize was, we're going to be out on the street in rags," she said. "I asked, 'Mom, does this mean we're going to be really poor?' My mom turned to me with a smile. She said, 'No, we're not poor. We're rich. We have our health. We're all together. And we all love each other.' Those words come back to me all the time."
Money isn't everything
In her 17 years as a parenting coach, Kevles-Necowitz said she has learned that the happiest families aren't always the ones with the most money. They're often the families who have few worldly possessions and who make do with what they have.
"The more stuff and money that people have, the more they feel like they have to keep enriching their children's lives in all these ways that have to do with things outside of us," she said.
After seeing an episode on the "Oprah Winfrey Show" about a wealthy woman who gave up everything to pursue a much simpler life, Kevles-Necowitz said she decided to give up her cherished BlackBerry in the evenings. Her husband - who's even more addicted to the technology tool than she is - did the same. Then her 6- and 9-year-old daughters gave up television.
"It feels scary because it's different, but if they can stay open to it, it's a positive experience," she said. "It's really fun to sit and try to figure out what we can do. It's shifting the way we're thinking about things, instead of thinking we need to tackle their boredom like some crisis."
But what's brought the Lower Makefield family even closer is the half-hour of silence every morning and evening, Kevles-Necowitz said. During that time, they do whatever they want, from finishing homework to doing laundry - so long as it doesn't involve talking.
Kevles-Necowitz said she approached the idea by simply stating that she was going to do it herself, and her husband and daughters could join her if they wanted to.
"They all joined it," she said. "They just were intrigued by the fact that I wanted to do it, and they didn't want to be left out."
Such an approach, Kevles-Necowitz said, can help parents and children deal with turmoil in their lives, economic or otherwise.
"I wish parents could present this to their children as an opportunity for a shift in their family," she said. "This is a good thing. Kids are happy living in a shoebox.
"They would live on the street in a shoebox as long as they're safe, their parents are with them, and their parents are calm." Kevles-Necowitz added. "What kids are reacting to is the panic the parents are feeling."