Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Helping Rural Children With A Farm Crisis

November 15, 1999

The news from the markets is dismal. Bills and loan payments come due. It is a frightening situation. Emotions are taut and frayed, ready to snap at the next bit of misfortune. It is easy to be preoccupied, worried, - even depressed.

That’s you. That’s your spouse. You’ve been through tough times before though not exactly like this. The stress is eating you up. What about the kids? How are they coping with your crisis?

Rand Conger, a sociologist and researcher at Iowa State University, shared some findings about youth and hard times in a rural setting. He sees two main ways children become more at risk for behavioral and emotional problems, school difficulties, and conflict with peers: parental conflict and parental depression.

Parental conflict. When parents quarrel and fight, children feel the stress and tension. Children are alarmed and frightened by the intensity of the anger and no foreseeable problem resolution. The security of the family is threatened.

Furthermore, the anger and frustration the parents have with each other spills over into the relationship with their children. They cannot switch easily from being angry and upset with their spouse one minute to being kind, loving and gentle with their child the next. The parents’ threshold for frustration is low. Conflicts arise when the parents’ stress reactions are introduced into the parent/child interactions. Children feel distressed when their own relationship with their parents has too much conflict.

Parental depression. When a parent is depressed, he or she loses their concentration and becomes preoccupied with worries and emotions. A depressed parent has less energy and isn’t as available to give timely attention to the normal ups and downs, stresses and strains of their children’s lives.

Children thrive on attention. Resilient children are good at seeking and enlisting the attention and help of at least one functional parent, relative or caring adult mentor. Parents need to pay attention to their children’s lives, thrill to their successes, be at their events, and comfort and counsel them when there are problems.

Children, especially teens, need monitoring and supervision. Parents have to set boundaries, enforce family rules and consequences, and monitor their activities, whereabouts and friendships. This is hard enough under normal circumstances, but extremely hard when a parent is depressed.

Parenting during hard times. Parents need to be aware of that their children’s stress is strongly tied to their own stress reactions to the crisis. Also, parents need to monitor their own emotions, serve as sounding boards for each other and get control of their reactions. They can seek help for depression and anxiety. Parents need to first reach out and get the emotional support and guidance they need to cope – just like the airline instructions, "Place the oxygen mask over your own mouth first and then assist your children with theirs."

If parents are quarreling and fighting, they need to seek guidance for their marriage. Going through a crisis is hard enough but even more so when you aren’t getting along. Children watch and are affected by the marital conflict. If the parents aren’t operating as a team, they need to "fix" the team.

Talking to children about a farm or ranch crisis. During hard times, parents need to get away from their own troubles and spend more time listening to their children. First listen, then talk. Ask, "What’s life like on a farm (or ranch)?" Or better yet, ask, "What’s life like on this farm (or ranch)?" See how they respond. Children need an opportunity to express their fears and worries about what they see and feel.

If you hear something that bothers you, stay in the listening mode and draw them out completely before responding to their concerns. Besides your own example of coping responsibly yourself, being a caring listener is the biggest help you can give.

Next, be honest in describing the financial implications of the crisis for the family. Rand Conger says "brutally honest." Keep them appraised of the decisions and plans you have for dealing with it. Explain your moods, edginess, preoccupation and apologize for any unfairness due to your own stress reactions. Children can handle material losses OK if their family relationships are solid. By sharing your financial struggles with them, you enlist their active support, cooperation and contributions to the family’s well being.

Young people whose hearts were set on "taking over" someday need to verbalize their concerns about their dreams being in jeopardy. Oftentimes youth are more flexible in changing career focus and adapt well. It is the parents who need to figure out what is best for themselves and not carry undo guilt about what may or may not happen in their children’s future careers.

How schools and churches can help. As friends of rural children, caring adults can be aware and listen to them about their worries and concerns. Seek out and engage them by asking about their lives.

The farm crisis and its impact can be a topic of discussion in classrooms. This will normalize the problem for rural children suffering through it. Videotaped stories about the crisis or workbooks may also spur discussion. Schools can be mindful of expenses connected with extra-curricular activities as many rural families will be on tight budgets his coming year. Community recognition of the farm crisis and community-sponsored events related to it will help reduce the isolation rural children feel.