Poverty alone is not a risk factor for potential developmental challenges. However, when experienced in combination with other risk factors it can increase the potential for physical, mental, behavioural and emotional concerns.
Families dealing with financial instability are more likely to experience stress and mental health issues. This added stress can make it difficult for parents to be responsive and attentive to the needs of their children. How parents cope with stress can provide protective elements to buffer the negative impact on a child.
Here are some tips on how to reduce stress, and improve family dynamics that promote the healthy development of your child, even when in a financial crisis.
Your Baby/Toddler (Birth to 36 months):
Your young child will always look to you to know they can trust and depend on you to meet their needs. When meeting the basic needs of food, shelter and clothing is more difficult, emotional needs can be greatly impacted. Working long hours, or spending long hours looking for work can take away from the time you might otherwise have with your child.
- Relationships are how your child learns about herself and what is expected of her, about the world around her, and where she fits in. These are very important concepts that, as parents, you heavily influence. The more you positively stimulate and engage with your child, the healthier and more resilient her brain and body will become. When you have conversations in a pleasant voice, when you play with your child and allow her to discover how the carpet feels, or what the button on your shirt does, her brain is absorbing all of these positive experiences. It’s like exercise for her brain cells.
- Your child is aware when you are not at your best, but cannot quite understand why. All your child cares about at this age is that his favourite toy (which is you!) is too busy or stressed to play right now. When you are not “present” with your child, he in turn becomes stressed. Being available to respond will help to alleviate this stress, and taking time to play might lessen some of your stress too. It’s also okay to rely on close family and friends to watch your child so you can have a break, get some chores done or rest. Then you’ll be able to play with your child and give him the attention he needs.
- Added financial stress can make you think and behave more negatively than you might otherwise. Your baby, in a very short time, will come to recognize your moods and this will affect whether or not she sees you as a “safe place”. Try to be aware of when you are feeling negative thoughts about parenting, or when you are feeling overwhelmed, and try to give yourself some time to recharge and de-stress. You can put your child in a safe place for a short time, such as a crib, or call on a friend or neighbour for support.
- Try to build your support network of family, friends, neighbours. Being isolated only increases your own feelings of loneliness and limits exposure to others that will love and help you care for your child. A child who is raised and loved by many people learns to feel valued, and to value others.
Your child does not need the newest games or trendiest toys, but it is important that your relationship is rich with responsiveness, patience, and love. Your child will learn how to be confident and develop a sense of self-esteem that will help him manage any challenges and adversity that comes his way. Remember to be an active member in your child’s life and learning so that his brain can develop in the best way possible.
Your Preschooler (36 months to 48 months):
Your child is now at an age where she can recognize what sort of things cause you stress, and therefore cause her stress. Keep in mind - it is not your child’s responsibility to be worried about you. It is most important that your relationship with your child is strong - that will shape your child’s sense of identity and self. Knowing that she is loved and will always be loved will help buffer any negativity that she may feel.
- Your child is becoming his own person. He’s beginning to form ideas about himself, you, the community, school and friends, and likewise, these groups are having an influence on your child. He may begin to ask questions and start to compare himself to other children that he meets. Make a point to have conversations with your child about his day and how he feels his day went. Be sensitive to your child’s feelings and do not feel offended or feel that your child is ungrateful that he may want more than he has. Rather, explain to your child that every family is different, and the most important thing is that you have each other.
- Support systems are just as important now as when your child was an infant. At this age, new supports, such as teachers, peers, and peers’ families are able to join your own set of family, friends and neighbours. These are all considered “buffers” in your child’s life. The more positive outlets you and your child have, the less likely you are both to feel stressed about things that are out of your control.
- This is also an age where it is important to get your child involved in the community. Extracurricular activities such as sports, the arts or general leisure activities can be expensive, or difficult to get to. Make the most of Family Resource centres in your area, as well as Ontario Early Years Centres where you can connect with other families and create a whole new support system. These are also great places to speak with professionals that know the community well, and can connect you to other resources that may help in other areas of your life. .
By creating a strong set of supports which act as buffers, as well as responding to your child and her needs, you help your child build a set of internal tools that will help her throughout her entire life, and will help her become successful in her own relationships as she grows into adulthood.
Want more tips? Read all of the tips from our partnership with Infant Mental Health Promotion at SickKids.