A Fiscal Lesson for the Ages
For Some, the Economic Turmoil Is a Grim Reminder of Past Crises. For Others, It Marks a New Fear.

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."

That's certainly true of Kamar.

Reddick-Morgan tried to draw out why he was so afraid. He had been shopping with her and could recite to the penny the rising grocery bills. He worried when she complained about rising gas prices. He told her that he was scared everyone would run out of money, then no one would have food.

Kamar reasoned that they could always move in with their grandmother in Georgia, a child of the atomic age who keeps a basement stocked with food. And if they needed money, he said, he could sell his iPod: "I could take all the songs off and erase my name."

Reddick-Morgan shook her head. "I had no idea they were thinking like this," she said.

Greenspan, author of "The Secure Child," said that at times like these, parents need to make more time to hang out with their children. They need to ask their children how much they know about what's going on, then answer questions in an age-appropriate way. They need to find ways for their children to help others. "If a child is active in helping make things better, there's less worry," Greenspan said.

So Reddick-Morgan has explained subprime loans and the foreclosures at the root of the crisis -- the children know at least three neighbors who have moved after losing their homes. But she does not tell them that she was so worried about her 401(k) a few years ago that she withdrew the money and put it in an ING savings account. Working for a nonprofit group, she sometimes fears that the grant funding her position might not come through. But that, too, is not something she shares: "That's something no child needs to worry about."

No matter the financial situation, never lie to children, said Jerilyn Ross, director of the Ross Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders in Washington. One patient had just lost her job but was too ashamed to tell her two teenage daughters. So when one daughter kept bugging her to buy new clothes and she refused, the girl felt angry and thought her mother was being unreasonable. "When the mom finally sat down and told her she couldn't afford the clothes because she'd lost her job, the daughter felt guilty, then wanted to help the mother," Ross said.

Shawn McLaughlin, who runs a small investment firm in Alexandria, said the crisis has kept him at work until 10 most nights and away from his four children, ages 2 to 8. "They're listening when I listen to the news, and they ask what does it mean. I use it as a chance to explain that this was all about greed," he said. "They're picking up on some of the despair. But I also say that better days are ahead. I talk about how we've been tested before as a country. I explain about Pearl Harbor and how we always come out the other end far stronger and far wiser."

Likewise, Reddick-Morgan has used the crisis to reinforce the importance of faith, family and education.

She sat with her children on a recent balmy evening, Kaise clutching her Clifford the Big Red Dog pillow and wrapped in a Winnie the Pooh blanket. "The only thing that matters is who you are and how you treat people," she told them. "Money. All these material things. You can't take it with you. You have to believe that no matter what happens, God is going to take care of us."

Because, she thinks, what else do you have?

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