The way a family operates and interacts makes up its environment. Like a machine, there are different parts that have specific jobs. If every part is working correctly, then the machine operates beautifully. But if one part breaks down, the machine cannot work.
Being a parent is a dirty job. You are the major operating part of the family's machine. You get all the credit when things go well and, unfortunately and often unfairly, you get all the blame when it doesn't. Children rely upon you for stability, structure, and nurturing. When there are parts of the machine that are broken or the process needs to be changed, a child can suffer. Consider the following three examples of family upheaval: the loss of a job, moving, and incarceration.
Loss of a Job
If a parent loses his job, the family's financial and emotional stability is likely affected. For example, Mom stayed at home with the children prior to the loss of the job. Perhaps she decides to get a job and let her spouse take over the homemaking responsibilities. It may take time to find a job, so resources become slim. Once she finds a job, Dad begins his new “job” at home.
Unless Mom and Dad are Siamese twins, they are not likely to do everything the same! This can cause either tiny problems at home or a major upheaval. Routines may alter, rules may change, and the entire family operation may undergo complete reconstruction. Also, Dad may be so focused on trying to get a handle on his new job that the kids are left to their own devices.
There are ways to help your child cope when a major change is about to happen within the family. Open communication is the best plan. Explain to your child, at an age-appropriate level, what is going to happen. Finding ways to reassure the child that everything will be fine helps make the child more immune to depression.
If there is a teenager in the home, she may be put in the role of babysitter or surrogate parent. And while there is nothing wrong with expecting your teen to help out around the house or with her siblings, remember that the key is to keep his duties age appropriate and to recognize that she is, after all, still a kid.
Children are not immune to these changes. No matter how hard they try, though, they are resistant to change and stress accumulates. Again, they feel left out. They might be angry at Mom for leaving them and resentful that Dad has taken over. When Mom comes home, she may still be trying to run the house and enforce her rules, while during the day things are operating differently.
It must be said that in this example Mom and Dad are doing the best they can. No one is intentionally forgetting the children. It's just that parents during this time are more fixated on making sure the family is back on track. This takes a lot of time and energy, and emotional needs of the children are not the top priority. If it does occur to them that they are not spending enough time with a child, or that a child needs extra reassurance during this time, parents think they can make it up to the child later. Often, later does not come soon enough, and a child is at risk for developing depressive symptoms.
Moving is another major change for a family, especially if it is out of town. There is a new home, new jobs, new friends, and new schools. The stress moving places on a family is huge. Parents are focused on settling in and getting re-established. There are bank accounts to open, utilities to turn on, and supplies to get. Everything is new and parents are pedaling as fast as they can to take it all in and get things back to normal for their families.
The best way to help your child make a smooth transition after a family move is to take care of his needs first. Show him where he will be going to school. Get him involved in activities as soon as possible. Meet your neighbors and their children. The sooner he can feel secure, the less likely he is to become depressed.
Moving is stressful enough for adults, so you can imagine how a child must feel. Don't assume that just because your child is caught up in the frenzy of the move and seems excited that this is the case. More often than not, your children feel anxious and afraid during this time.
While they are busy trying to get control over this new world, their feelings may not emerge until later. Encouraging your child to talk about what he misses from the old house, as well as what he thinks about the move, will get him engaged in his feelings and you will have a better clue as to how to help him.
Children who have a sick brother or sister are likely to feel invisible within the family. Becoming visible often entails behaving in extreme ways — either positive or negatively — in order to get their parents' attention. Make sure you carve out time to spend only with the healthy child so that she feels her importance in the family.
In terms of family upheaval, a parent's incarceration is not as common an occurrence. But when it does happen, the family dynamics change drastically. If a parent is in jail, he is absent from the family and usually has limited contact. The responsibilities he had at home are now someone else's. Rules may change now that Mom is in charge. Mom may have to work, or maybe she was working before and now she has to get a second job to make ends meet.
A child needs to be aware of what is happening, again at an age-appropriate level. When no explanation is offered, she is quick to assume that she is somehow responsible for Dad leaving. Did she make him mad? Was she bad? Did he leave because for the third time that week she left her bicycle in the driveway when Dad told her to pick it up? Like many adults, a child worries, and that worry can become excessive and turned inward.
In addition, having a parent in prison is embarrassing. Children are often at a loss as to how they can explain a parent's absence to others. The humiliation and disappointment a child may feel about and toward an incarcerated parent makes her feel ashamed. Left unnoticed or unaddressed, she will become depressed.
These are but three examples of family upheaval, and there are hundreds more. Change within the family is guaranteed to happen. Too much change and chaos is going to have a significant effect on even the healthiest of families. Whether or not you have any control over the changes, you have to be on the alert for how your child is handling the pressures of family upheaval before it gets out of hand.