A Fiscal Lesson for the Ages

"I had no idea they were thinking like this," Kerri ReddickMorgan says of economic fears her children have raised. (By Brigid Schulte -- The Washington Post)
By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 5, 2008

Kerri Reddick-Morgan lives a solidly middle-class life. She has a master's degree, a good job as a marketing director for a nonprofit group and rents a nice townhouse in Woodbridge. But as Wall Street, major investment banks and markets around the world have come unglued, she has had to reassure her anxious children that their world has not.

Ten-year-old Kamar is so worried that another Great Depression is coming he thinks he might not have kids when he grows up, in case he can't find a job.

Eighteen-year-old Andrew has become so stressed out about paying for college next year that he has started referring to it as "the C-word."

And hearing about failing banks, 12-year-old Kaise wondered whether her babysitting money would disappear from her savings account. Time to talk FDIC insurance, Reddick-Morgan said.

"The only calming thing I could do was to tell her, 'You don't have over $100,000 in your bank account, so your money is fine,' " she said. "That is not a conversation I thought I would ever be having with my 12-year-old."

Amid free-falling stocks, shrinking retirement and college savings plans and skyrocketing foreclosures, it's not just adults who have been seized with uncertainty recently.

A survey of 500 U.S. teenagers released Friday found that almost 70 percent feared an "immediate negative impact" on the security of their families. "That's a gigantic figure," said Michael Cohen, a research psychologist who runs the opinion research firm that conducted the poll. "There's anxiety about this. And the anxiety is not just for the society at large, but for me and my family. I was quite taken aback by the scope of that fear. "

And unless parents, who might be fearful, too, can help restore a child's sense of security, many might wind up with headaches or stomachaches or begin acting out or losing interest in school, child psychologists say.

For some children, the anxiety is far more overwhelming.

Alexandria resident Adelfa Ramirez cleans homes, and her husband is a carpenter. Business for both has dropped dramatically as the families who hire them have cut spending. The family is about to lose its home to foreclosure. Her 15-year-old, Eduardo, has offered to forgo his allergy medication and get a job.

"For him, $6 or $7 an hour seems like a lot. But it's nothing," Ramirez said in Spanish. "He wants to work to help us, but I told him: 'No. Not yet.' For me, it's far more important that he prepare himself intellectually so that he can go to college."

But even children not in crisis "pick up the mood, the tension, the anxiety -- there are no secrets in families," said Stanley Greenspan, professor of child psychiatry and pediatrics at George Washington University, who has started to see the economic anxiety show up in his practice. "Younger kids tend to be all-or-nothing thinkers. So a healthy 8-year-old is more likely to worry in a more extreme way than an adult."

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