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They’re coming to Donna Wilburn’s office for counseling, anxious about a declining economy, worried about job losses and concerned about the family’s bills.

They’re having trouble sleeping — they may even awaken in the middle of the night with nightmares — they’re feeling irritable, and some are even prone to crying over what is, or what they fear eventually may be, happening to them.

Boy, a recession sure can be tough on a kid.

Wilburn, a licensed marriage and family therapist who specializes in working with children, is seeing kids who are exhibiting physical symptoms of stress because of their parents’ financial worries.

With many families facing what could be a less-than-sparkly holiday season this year, it might be a good time for parents to start a new tradition: sitting down with their children to talk about how financial issues may affect the family.

Parents may not realize it, but kids can be adept at picking up on Mom’s or Dad’s fears. While young children may not fully grasp the connection between, say, Mom or Dad losing a job and how the money they earn allows the family to buy things, they certainly can detect when something seems, in general, amiss.

“Kids have a sense that things are not right in the home, and they’re detecting parental stress and anxiety,” notes Dr. Norton Roitman, a Las Vegas psychiatrist. “They might notice certain food items aren’t being purchased, or the car isn’t washed as often.”

Then, just as in adults, that vaguely off vibe and sense of uncertainty can promote anxiety to the point where, Wilburn says, a child can “actually get very stressed out about their future or their security.”

Kids can be particularly prone to finance-induced stress because they don’t have the perspective of an adult.

“Especially if a child is a worrier, and they hear that there is financial stress, they don’t take it as, ‘Oh, just some stress,’ ” Wilburn says. “They start worrying about what this means to me: Will we have food? Will we have rent? And if they don’t talk about their little worries, it can be a big concern and actually trigger stress disorders.”

In some cases, financial anxiety in a family is something a child picks up on. In others, a child’s stress may result from Mom and Dad giving kids details they probably don’t need to hear.

“What I’m seeing is parents are disclosing, maybe, more detail than needed regarding their financial stress,” Wilburn says. With the holiday season approaching, some children even are “feeling guilty about asking for anything, because they see the stress that their parents are under.”

The result: Children are “left with big, huge worries in their head they don’t share,” Wilburn says. “They have difficulty sleeping and difficulty concentrating at school. They’re showing tics and just (feel) really stressful.”

Talking with a child about a family’s financial circumstances — addressing directly a child’s perhaps vague fears — can be a good idea, as long as the parent does it in a way that eases a child’s fears and bolsters his sense of security. And, as is the case with just about every other parenting issue, the specifics of doing that depend upon a child’s age and stage of development.

Older children, for example, probably can understand a more thorough explanation of Mom’s or Dad’s layoff and what it means to the family than can a younger child. A good guide, Roitman says, is to take cues from questions a child asks.

But even before starting this conversation, the parent should sort through his or her own feelings. Gerald Weeks, chairman of the department of marriage and family therapy at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, notes that even married couples can find it difficult to talk about money.

One reason is that money can represent more than a simple means of exchange. It can represent “power, freedom, security and, for some people, the need for love,” Weeks says.

For some, “it’s also very much tied up with self-esteem and self-worth: I’m worth what I make, and my self-esteem, my self-worth, is somehow tied to how much money I make,” Weeks adds.

A parent whose own self-worth is threatened by a layoff should take a deep breath before discussing the family’s finances with a child.

“Before you talk to your kids, you should find a place where you’re settled, where you can count your blessings,” Roitman says, because “children pick up both messages, what’s said and what isn’t — body language and facial expression.”

Understand, too, Roitman says, that “this is not a time to share with your kids what you share with your spouse. What you want to do is help your child make an adjustment, and give them fair warning there are going to be (family) changes.

“What you do is prepare to deliver a message, and the best message would be that one way or another, we’re going to be fine because we have a good family and we’ll get through whatever.”

Belt-tightening can mean anything from eating out less often to paring the Christmas gift-giving budget or canceling a holiday trip. So, find a way to cast the changes the family will be adopting into something positive. For example, Wilburn says: ” ‘We’re going to be more responsible with money, so let’s set a budget for Christmas. You and I will spend only this much,’ or, ‘I will buy you three things for Christmas because we’re going to be responsible.’

“It’s called reframing,” Wilburn says. “Reframe it into a positive or a healthy thing to do, versus being overly afraid or because times are really tough.”

Emphasize family bonds by presenting the financial setback not as an insurmountable problem but as a challenge the family will face together: “If we’re a cohesive family, we work together,” Weeks says. “We all share this problem. It’s not my problem, it’s not your problem, it’s our problem, and we will solve this problem.” Reframing even could serve as a way for any family to scale back out-of-hand holiday spending.

Wilburn says to explain that ” ‘We don’t have to buy stuff to bond. We can play a game or do crafts.’ Children actually will really appreciate time with a parent much more than the material things.”

Contact reporter John Przybys at jprzybys@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0280.

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