Oil downturn weighs heavy on kids' mental health, says expert

History shows that children's mental and emotional health suffers during economic recession, says Soraya Lakhani.

Child psychologist Soraya Lakhani says parents under extreme stress often shut out their kids

Child psychologist Soraya Lakhani says parents need to make a special effort to be honest and open with their kids in these tough economic times. (Getty Images)

Kids may not be the ones getting fired, but they're the ones who could end up shouldering the long-term consequences of these tough economic times, says one child psychologist. 

Alberta lost nearly 20,000 jobs last year, making 2015 the province's worst year for employment since the painful energy bust of 1982, according to the latest data from Statistics Canada.

"When we look at historical patterns in terms of previous economic downturns, we see so many findings about how kids suffer in terms of their emotional wellbeing, in terms of their mental health," said Soraya Lakhani, clinical director at Yellow Kite Child Psychology in Calgary.

Children highly sensitive to environment

Soraya Lakhani is a registered psychologist and the director of Yellow Kite Child Psychology in Calgary.

Children might not understand the big picture, but they are able to absorb how their parents are feeling, and that can dramatically affect their overall health, Lakhani said.

Parents who lose their job can become completely consumed by stress and embarrassment and may become more irritable, abrasive and impatient in their relationships, she said.

Often, that translates to being less attentive to their kids, who are not always able to express or advocate for themselves. 

"Whether we're talking about infants all the way up to late teens, there is a need for that parental connection, and that's what we sometimes see breaking down during times of financial hardship," Lakhani said.

"This is that window that parents have to give their kids the tools that they deserve to be successful in life."

Talk about it, but don't overshare

In times like these, parents need to make a special effort to be honest and open with their kids, Lakhani said. 

"Kids are aware of what's happening around them, and sometimes it's not a choice of whether [parents] want to talk to their kids," she said.

"It's about taking control of the conversation and making sure that their kids know that their parents are ... going to be those protective caregivers no matter what."

At the same time, Lakhani cautions parents against oversharing with their children, as a sudden outpouring of worry and negative emotions can do more harm than good. 

Most children won't be interested in the specifics, but they will understand that money is tight, she said.

"That conversation can be a positive opportunity for parents to talk to their kids about financial practices: saving, differentiating between wants and needs, spending wisely," she added.

Low-cost, high-yield activities

Parents need to take care of themselves in order to be able to take care of their kids, and unfortunately, self-care is one of the first things to get knocked off the list of priorities when the going gets tough, Lakhani said. 

She recommends that parents be proactive in setting up supports for themselves, whether with friends or counselling professionals. 

She also encourages parents to consider "low-cost, high-yield" family activities create opportunities for parents and kids to bond together. 

These include going for a walk, reading, cooking, playing board games and solving puzzles together. 

"If they're looking after their own health and wellbeing, that really enhances their ability to connect with their kids."


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