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Helping families cope with stress – I

By Staff | Apr 3, 2009

Colleen Jolly, Iowa State University Extension family life specialist, said that as economic challenges necessitate new ways of families working together, comfortable routines are altered and one’s sense of order and security can be threatened.

She added that while a certain amount of stress is unavoidable and is usually manageable, too much stress can hinder a person’s physical and mental health.

Symptoms of stress might include headaches, lingering fatigue, disrupted sleep patterns, more frequent illness, frequent anger or irritability, inability to relax, discouragement and a sense of futility.

Over time, Jolly said stress can result in low productivity, increased use of drugs or alcohol, forgetfulness, marital or other relationship problems, loneliness and resentment.

She and other ISU Extension specialists offer these tips to families in need:

  • Marriages. During periods of financial loss or possible lifestyle changes, conflict can often arise as a result of differences in the way spouses handle it.

Tips to keep a marriage healthy under financial stress include learning to express appreciation toward a spouse, not taking each other for granted, spending quality time doing something fun, keeping communication flowing, sharing responsibility for decisions that affect the family, sharing the burdens, planning strategies to cope with crisis before it occurs.

Jolly said to remember that when money gets tight and times get tough, it is imperative that couples need to show love and affection toward each other. Church leaders have long stated that the best gift parents can give to their children is a strong marriage.

  • Helping children cope. First, Jolly said, one should help himself gain control of his own stress. In that way, one can be ready to help someone else deal with the effects of it.

Other tips include giving children information about the family’s situation by being totally honest, recognizing stress symptoms in children, which includes sleeplessness, diarrhea, withdrawal, headaches and angry outbursts; and encouraging children to talk about their feelings and fears.

Parents must help children focus on positive aspects of their lives and to openly discuss as a family how a loss in income affects the money available for extra activities and allowances.

Jolly recommends trying to keep major changes to a minimum and spending time together doing low-cost or no-cost activities that the family enjoys.

  • Allow kids and teens to contribute. All members can be essential in contributing to the family’s needs by turning off lights and electronics not in use, taking shorter showers, eating more meals at home, working to help control heating and cooling costs by closing doors on unheated rooms or rooms with no air conditioning, freezing leftovers, riding a bike to school or work, reviewing a list of needs versus wants, working with the family to enjoy each other.
  • The family as a whole. Tips for a healthy family to flourish under financial stress includes increasing the time spent with supportive family and friends, who are important buffers in times of stress; practicing positive communication, making personal health a priority, because it is essential in coping with stress; strengthening spiritual resources, being mindful of what is most important to oneself and one’s family; remaining aware of ongoing changes that contribute to stress, and postponing new commitments if they will add stress, and reaching out to people in the community.

By “being there” for others, Jolly said, it strengthens one’s own circle of support.

Jolly urged all family members to stop worrying about things over which one has no control, and to know the difference between what can and cannot be changed, make the shift from worrying to problem solving and to pat oneself on the back over accomplishments, no matter how small.

  • Helping others. There are many ways of “being there” for those who are going through a financial crisis, which include taking time to listen and being non-judgmental.

Ralph Mayer, an ISU Extension farm management specialist, said that dealing with stress often calls for professional help that is beyond most peoples’ capabilities, no matter their sincerity in wanting to help.

“When this happens, suggest that the individual seek professional help,” he said. “In lesser situations, just being a caring, empathetic, supportive and unhurried listener can go a long way in helping an individual through a difficult situation.”

Though Jolly added that it’s less than realistic to think that stress can be eliminated from farm family lives, there are ways to cope with it if people will allow themselves to be helped.

“Unfortunately, reactions to stress overload can make it difficult to take steps that might help,” she said. “Too much responsibility can make it seem almost impossible to take charge,” she said. Her last two tips include doing something about one small piece of a bigger problem and accepting change as a natural part of life.

Other contributing information for this piece came from Phyllis Pickelsimer of the University of Illinois; Donna Donald of Iowa State University; Karen Byers of ISU Extension; Mary Beth Kaufman, Mary Hughes and Pat Anderson of Iowa State University.

Farm operations

Jolly said it’s important to keep one’s spouse informed about what’s happening on the farm. Be patient and clarify misunderstandings when questions are asked and to plan together.

When problems arise, talk about them as soon as possible, Jolly said, and arrive at a mutually agreeable plan.

Develop a spending plan and stick to it, Jolly urged, avoiding use of credit, which often brings only temporary relief and eventually, more debt.

Communicating with creditors if bills can’t be paid on time and looking for ways to earn extra income through a second job, are other ways to defuse stress, Jolly said.

Families can cut expenses by considering the local food pantry or become involved in a local SHARE program; and taking advantage of free and reduced priced lunches at school.

Contact Karen Schwaller by e-mail at kschwaller@evertek.net.

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