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Tough economy isn’t child’s play

Updated: December 29, 2011 11:14AM

Tonika Williams sat in the kitchen of her Chicago home. Silence filled the room, as a tear slowly slid down her left cheek.

After enduring nearly a year of unemployment, she’d just been asked what she was going to do if she was unable to get help to avoid foreclosure of her home.

Her thoughts were on her 12-year-old son and 17-year-old daughter.

“That’s something that I try not to think about,” answered the proud single mother. “I’m so driven and focused because I do have two kids.”

Four years after the start of the Great Recession, and even as the economy grows, many families are in crisis or barely coping with the upheaval caused by the loss of jobs and homes.

While long-term unemployment and the foreclosure epidemic is challenging family members of all ages, there is reason to worry that the stress and uncertainty children face today will thwart their ability to thrive in the future, experts warn.

“It’s not only a life-changing experience for the adults that are losing our jobs, it’s also a loss for the kids,” said Williams. “Whatever happens to us is a domino effect happening to our kids. The most important thing is our babies.”

Indeed, there is growing evidence that a parent’s job loss adversely affects how children behave, how they achieve in school and even how they do in the job market later in life.

“Whenever parents are stressed out, children sense that stress,” said Lynne Knobloch-Fedders, a licensed clinical psychologist and director of research at the Family Institute at Northwestern University. “That creates a lot of uncertainty for the children.”

For one thing, job loss can shake up parental roles.

“That can be unsettling for the entire family,” Knobloch-Fedders said. “Let’s say the father is at home and was not at home before. The father has to adjust to being at home. The mother has to adjust to having the father take over some of those responsibilities, and the children have to adjust to a new family environment and a [different] parent’s approach to homework and activities and things. That’s often a very difficult transition for a family.”

Regardless whether Mom or Dad loses the job, children more often have trouble at school.

When low-income mothers suffer job losses, there is a 40 percent increase in problem behavior among children in the classroom, according to research by Heather Hill, assistant professor at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration. That problem behavior ranged from children being more withdrawn and showing signs of depression to such things as acting out, disobeying, and being physical with other kids or teachers, she said.

Problems can occur at higher income levels as well. Children were 1.6 times more likely to repeat a grade if their father lost a job, research that focused on middle and higher income families found. The research by Ariel Kalil, professor in the U of C Harris School of Public Policy Studies, also found children were more likely to be suspended or expelled from school and less likely to attend college.

Keeping it from the kids

For months, Williams didn’t tell her children that she’d lost her job.

“I hid it for a long time,” she said “I acted like I was going to work everyday. I would get up and I would leave, put my smiley face on.”

But when the long-time retail worker was laid off from her job as a cashier at Kohl’s last year, she said she never expected to be out of work for nearly a year.

As she watched bills pile up, grappled with the continuing threat of foreclosure, and tried to keep the financial reality from her kids, her health suffered. She has since been diagnosed with high blood pressure and diabetes.

One day when she was at her lowest, she said, she wept in her car. “I told God that I was tired. I couldn’t carry the weight any more. I couldn’t do this by myself, and I just needed some help.”

After that, she told the kids what was going on. Since then, she said she’s observed signs of withdrawal in her son, who she said is a gifted student.

“My son tends to stay to himself now,” she said, and he’s been having headaches and has what she describes as “a hopelessness attitude.”

Laura Swanlund, a school psychologist in the Palatine school distinct, said children who are dealing with Mom or Dad’s job loss worry about their parents. “They want their parents to be working and happy,” she said, even if they may fight with their parents. Yet one of the best ways they can help is “by listening to their parents, just doing the basic things like helping out around the house.”

Hanging onto the house

Williams recently landed a part-time job at Target, but she hasn’t been able to get sufficient hours to even come close to catching up on bills, including her mortgage, and she is trying to save her home.

Since the recession began, more than 138,000 homes (or 1 in 27) were lost to foreclosure in bank repossessions in the Chicago metropolitan area through November, according to RealtyTrac. As a result, more families have been doubling up. U.S. Census Bureau data shows there currently are 21.8 million doubled up family households, up nearly 11 percent from 2007.

If Williams can keep her home, she’ll be protecting her children from more upheaval.

“Moving homes often means changing schools and changing peer groups, and they can lose time in school,” said Kalil.

Northwestern’s Knobloch-Fedders said such transitions are especially hard on young children.

“Teens and older kids can say, ‘I miss my friends or I don’t want to go to a new school,’ ” she said. “Smaller children don’t necessarily say, ‘I miss my comfortable little night stand with my lamp that I liked, my bedroom.’ ”

Rolling Meadows retirees Gloria and Tony opened up their home to their 29-year-old son, his girlfriend and their two grandchildren when their son lost his carpentry job more than three years ago, because “they can’t afford to live on their own,” said Gloria.

The retirees, who didn’t want to reveal their last names, said their son is still unemployed, despite trying hard to land a job, and his girlfriend recently lost her job as a waitress.

Gloria said she thinks the grandkids, ages 6 and 9, have adjusted well. Still she concedes she worries that they will pick up on the financial pressure their parents are experiencing, “especially the 9-year-old,” Gloria said. “We just do a lot of praying, and we help as much as we can.”

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