Economic hardship and financial distress can have devastating effects on families. In tough economic times, many families lose their jobs, homes, cars, retirement accounts, belongings, savings, health insurance, and more. Families often struggle just to meet their basic needs. Stay-at-home moms may suddenly find themselves searching for work or selling their prized possessions. Unemployed fathers feel like a failure, are guilt stricken and ashamed of losing their identity as the family's provider. Grown, adult men and women with children may find themselves moving back in with their parents until they can put the pieces of their lives back together; other families are moving in with each other.
The shift from having "something," even moderate means, to having "nothing" is devastating. When families are faced with the grief of losing everything and the fear of never being able to recover, these uncontrollable circumstances have a drastic impact on families as a whole, on marriages, and on husbands, wives, parents, and children.
Common responses to such devastation include:
- post-traumatic stress
- severe grief
- alcohol or drug abuse
- overwhelming levels of stress
- feelings of detachment
- feeling surreal
- over- or under-eating
- inability to sleep (or excess sleep)
- upset stomach
- and other physical and mental symptoms of stress and depression
Families may become torn apart or separated. For example, children may move in with extended family or friends, or marriages may be extremely stressed and fall a part, and there may be underlying tension or feelings of despair. Parents may interact with their children in tense or punitive ways with a short temper; children may respond with negative behaviors and emotions, and teens may face problems in school, negative peer groups, lost self-esteem, and delinquency.
How do you know when to seek help?
If you or your loved one is experiencing any of these symptoms, it is important to seek help. Stress may feel overwhelming. Depression, if left unaddressed, could cripple one's ability to get out of bed, take a shower, put on clothes and look for a new job. In the worst case, if left unaddressed, depression can, in some cases, lead someone you love to committing suicide.
What options for help are available?
Medications are commonly used to treat anxiety, panic, depression, and other symptoms one is experiencing. While medication is helpful in restoring health and healing to one's physical body (the brain in particular), treatment is most successful when coupled with psychotherapy or "talk" therapy.
Talk therapy (psychotherapy) occurs in a relaxed, straightforward, and non-judging environment, in which you or your loved one will sit down with a therapist and discuss the things that are bothering you in a safe and private space. A therapist is skilled in helping to bring important issues to the forefront, and in helping each voice and perspective be expressed, heard, and understood.
Areas may include:
- Financial health issues, such as instrumental and psychoeducational interventions, to aid job searching and financial management
- Mental health issues, such as stress, anxiety, confidence and esteem loss, and depression, in adult and child family members
- Behavior issues, academic issues, and issues of negative activities and peers, in children and adolescents
- Couple and marriage issues, reducing financial strain effects on relationships
- Parent-child relationship issues, parenting emotions and practices, understanding negative and positive parenting practices and effects
- Family issues, including family counseling to reduce blame, to build resiliency, and activate family resources
- Community issues, helping families to engage with community resources and increase social support
How can an MFT help the client and family?
A marriage and family therapist (MFT) can help you or your loved one and the family. MFTs are trained to understand the complex nature of problems, especially problems resulting from external social factors, such as economic hardship. They address problems that an individual may be experiencing, as well as difficulties in couple and parent-child relationships. An MFT can help alleviate symptoms like anxiety or depression through addressing the social or familial circumstances that may be contributing. They can help you to ensure that your children are buffered from the worst effects of financial strain in effective and concrete ways.
MFTs believe in the power of healing that occurs when treating and working with the whole family unit. Even though a particular family member may be the one who seems to be suffering the most, generally all family members are also affected in various ways. All perspectives and resources come together in family therapy to create positive and helpful changes in a shared and co-created vision.
MFTs can work with family relationships to restore trust, improve communication, increase satisfaction, and foster healthy ways of relating.
Clinicians are knowledgeable about research findings about what protects families from the adverse effects of financial strain.
- Couple/marriage therapy. Couples who treat each other well in times of financial stress fare much better than those who argue and blame each other for problems. While some amount of argument about money is to be expected, how couples argue is important to relationship quality. Couples therapy can help spouses/partners communicate safely and effectively. Couples therapy can help couples work together to partner, support, and care for each other through difficult times.
- Family therapy and parenting. Positive parenting practices and good parental relationships substantially protect children from the serious negative impacts of financial strain in families. Family therapy focused on parenting and parent-child relationships can go a long way in helping children. Clinicians may work with mothers and fathers to reduce irritability and stress expressed toward children, and to reduce negative parenting—aversive, punitive, arbitrary, coercive techniques (such as threats, derogatory statements, slaps)—and to build positive parenting—(reasoning and loss of privileges)— that is nurturing, affectionate, and sensitive to children’s needs.
Research indicates that parents, as well as children, benefit when parents feel more effective and capable, parent-child relationships improve, and parenting feels less difficult and more satisfying. In turn, as parental well-being improves, so does children’s.
Themes commonly addressed in therapy include grieving loss, confronting denial or unrealistic expectations, symbolism and meaning of money, restoring trust, emotion regulation and couples skill development, stress management, money management, job search skills, parenting skills, and children’s well-being.
This consumer update was written by Sarah Stuchell, MA and Ruth Houston Barrett, MA.
Use the AAMFT Consumer Update "Financial Distress and the Family" pamphlets to market your practice.