Tough Times, Resilient Families

These times of economic insecurity challenge parents who already feel strapped to find enough time, any time, for their young children. Parents everywhere may take comfort from knowing that they are hardly alone in this period of foreclosures, layoffs, dislocations and worries about today and tomorrow.
Many parents cling desperately to the jobs they have, no matter how much time is now demanded, and bring home even more stress than ever – doing double time to make up for staff cuts and worried about looming layoffs.  Children feel the impact. But parents and children may also find that facing adversity together can strengthen the family – and the community, too, when families share what they have. During this holiday season especially, giving and sharing take on new meaning.

In most U.S. families today, both parents are in the workforce; 63 percent of mothers (of children under 18) work outside the home. Despite massive layoffs, the demands of the workplace on families aren’t likely to change all that much. We still need to find ways to adjust to them that will put children’s best interests first.
Today, parents are asked to split themselves in two – for the workplace and for nurturing at home. Increasingly, parents also are “on call” at home via work-linked cell phones, computers and all manner of hand-held devices that can compete for a family’s time.  Children must adjust to the pressures on their parents and participate in all the efforts to “make it” in a working family.  More time is the universal need of working parents. For most families, there simply is not enough time to just be together. No time for just dreaming and thinking. No time for oneself. No time for one’s spouse. No time for the children.  Children feel the stress their parents are under. Some turn away, as if to prevent themselves from causing their parents further stress. They seem to have given up on moments when they might have their parents to themselves. Others lobby hard to keep their parents tuned in to them, even if it means behavior that wrecks the little time they have together.

Children benefit, though, when parents can strike a reasonable balance between work and family.  Ellen Galinsky, director of Work Family Directions in New York, asked children what they thought about their mothers’ working outside the home. Most children quickly stood up for their mothers: “Even if she hates her job, we need the money and we all know it.”  These children felt that their mothers were “the most important person for me. She’s always there when I’m sick or I need her.” Their mothers’ working or not was not their issue. They wanted “focus time” with their mothers, time in which they were uppermost in her thoughts. The most satisfied children valued the “hanging out” time they had with their mothers. Rather than so-called quality time spent on planned excursions or planned togetherness, these children preferred just hanging out with their parents.

For the many parents who must spend the bulk of their time at work, there are ways to turn the priority of work into a positive for the children. It became apparent from Galinsky’s study that children want to be a part of the family’s efforts; they want to understand their parents’ jobs, to be included in the family’s efforts to “make it.” If the family is working together, children do not feel shortchanged. “School is kids’ workplace. My mom and dad have theirs. But we have each other to help us.”
In planning solutions for families in which both parents must work, each parent needs to share in decisions about family priorities. If their children are old enough, they may be included in the decision-making, too.  Then, when the questions arise, “Did you see Joey’s flashy new car? Are we ever going to get rid of our old junk heap?” or “She gets an allowance to buy her own toys. Why can’t I have one? You don’t ever buy me anything,” the parent can point to the family’s decisions, trade-offs and the values behind them. The current economic downturn is a time to re-examine values, and to model more altruistic and less materialistic ones for children.

Many parents will now need to be ready to make extra efforts just to try to hold onto their jobs – and their children will again need to adapt. A shift of values toward pulling together, looking out for each other, making sacrifices for each other, and having fun just being together rather than buying together may help many families make the transition to having less.


Still, this can’t make up for basic necessities such as food and shelter that more and more families can no longer take for granted. Some may find that they can stretch what they have a little farther by sharing their resources with neighbors – carpooling to school or for grocery shopping, or sharing childcare arrangements.  At the same time, they’ll be modeling the kind of values that have made this country strong and always pulled us through tough times. This is a time to pull together, to help each other out, and it will last well beyond this holiday season.
How to balance working and caring:
-Openly discuss the need to work and the necessary adjustments to the two jobs – at home and in the workplace.
-Share the work at home. Children can help as they grow up.
-Be aware of feelings of grief over being away.
-Learn to separate office worries and home concerns. Leave work at the job, non-critical home problems at home.
-Stay in contact regularly with each child and his caregiver.
-Prepare each child for separation in the morning and yourself for reunion at night.
-Learn to “cheat” on the workplace. Save up energy during the day for close family times at the end of the day.
-Recognize that all children will be tired and fall apart when you return. They’ll save up their protests for you. Be prepared and save energy for them.
-Tend to children and their needs first.
-When you arrive home, gather everyone up in a big rocking chair to rock and catch up together. “How was your day?” “I missed you so.”
-As soon as you are close again, then, and only then, attend to household chores.
-Plan regular celebrations for the family that works together!

(This article is updated from “Touchpoints: Three to Six,” by T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua D. Sparrow, M.D., published by Da Capo Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group.)
Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment, health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.