It was fourth grade when my mom sat me on our living room couch to talk. I set my feet on the edge of our dilapidated coffee table as she said that we couldn’t pay our “house bill” this month. I saw the fear in her eyes and I immediately felt a surge of anxiety racing through my stomach. I was confused, and my anxiety sparked a nervousness that caused the room to spin.
“What’s going to happen to us?” I asked, as she proceeded to define a mortgage and what “being late” on a payment meant. The lump in my stomach grew, and I started crying. I felt terrified that our family’s simple home would be taken away. The remainder of the night was spent watching TV. As I tried to escape into the worlds in front of me, the lump in my stomach was a constant reminder that things were bad.
The next day at school I felt the lump as I tried to live like nothing was wrong, but no matter how hard I tried I could always sense the fear coursing through my body. I had no one to talk to, I didn’t know how to seek help. Though I was so young, I could clearly feel my social withdrawal from my peers as I drifted into my mind’s fear.
I wish that my fourth grade experience was an isolated incident, but the financial problems only worsened. As I got older, I became a sponge, absorbing the stress coming from the relentless bills pouring into our home. My body was in a constant hurricane season, and consequentially I was always on alert for the next crippling whirlwind to twist me into knots.
Luckily, as I got older, I began channeling my fear into a source to improve my academic and social lives — things that I could control. Unfortunately, many children suffering from parents’ financial strain never find ways to cope with their anxiety. Instead, the stress manifests itself in mood-altering and antisocial behaviors.
Impoverished children and teenagers are more likely to suffer from depression. This could have multiple explanations. Similar to my experience, it could be a product of continuous, incoming stress. It could also come from children’s parents, who are more likely to be depressed when suffering financially. The depression of a parent can often spur depression in a child, causing an unhealthy cycle.
The combination of financial stress and depression can have serious consequences in children. A child who experiences common symptoms of depression including pessimism, guilt and helplessness could really struggle to overcome these issues given the seemingly endless parental struggle to pay bills. Other common depression symptoms include difficulty concentrating and remembering details. Plus, a child chronically stressed by financial difficulties has reduced cognition and memory and impaired attention. These problems would make it difficult for a child to succeed in school, and given the link between education and income, a financially burdened child’s depression and stress could prolong financial stress into adulthood.
Alongside depression, children in financially burdened households are also more likely to exhibit antisocial behavior, which includes “bullying, being cruel, breaking things, cheating or telling lies.” Once children begin developing this behavior, they struggle to break these habits in lieu of healthy socializing skills.
These antisocial behaviors can hinder a child’s ability to develop strong peer networks, something they desperately need. From personal experience, it’s hard to visualize breaking the cycles and stresses of poverty without a positive support system that helps you visualize opportunities outside of your own circumstances. Furthermore, it’s imperative that these children have emotional support for their constant stress.
Now, let’s make one thing clear: I’m not trying to criticize parents as the cause of impoverished children’s stress. These parents are trying their hardest — oftentimes working extra hours to support their families. They’re also more likely to suffer from depression, and since only 6.2 percent of married-couple families live in poverty, there’s a good chance the parent is trying to raise a child primarily on their own.
We must recognize these hindrances and stressors in the lives of children who grow up in low socioeconomic status homes. We need to train teachers to identify children with behavior indicating that they’re suffering. I’m highlighting teachers since children spend so much time with them. If I could have talked about my problems with another adult, I’m rather certain that I could have developed coping mechanisms and ways to relieve stress years earlier than I did.
But teachers aren’t the only people who need to help. As the famous saying goes, “It takes a village to raise a child.” As a society we must be more attuned to recognizing a child who demonstrates signs of struggling, and we must be willing to lend a listening ear and an empathetic heart. These lessons must also be ingrained in our youth. I can vouch that an act as simple as listening to a friend’s pain can provide more relief than the listener can comprehend.
We must make impoverished children feel more supported. We cannot allow them to slip through the cracks.
Michael Schramm can be reached at email@example.com.