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Bulletin #4701, Family Conversations During Hard Times

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Family Conversations During Hard Times

mother talking with young daughterDeveloped by Extension Child and Family Development Specialist Leslie A. Forstadt and Assistant Extension Professor Kristy Meisner Ouellette

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Making decisions during times of stress can be difficult. Under stress, many people try to solve problems on their own. When you are part of a family, it’s important to communicate about what is going on. Learning how to communicate with loved ones during hard times can ease stress by helping everyone understand the issues. This way everyone can work together to adapt to new situations.

Many of Maine’s families are facing major stresses like job loss, military deployment, relocation, or divorce. How stressed are Mainers? Maine’s unemployment rate has been trending up along with the national rate, and reached 7 percent in December 2008, up from 4.9 percent in December 2007. Maine lost 8,000 jobs from the start of the current recession in December 2007 through November 2008 — more than 4,000 of them from September through November.1 From 2000 to 2007, rents in Maine rose 30 percent and home prices increased 69 percent, but median income only rose 20 percent.2 Maine’s Army National Guard ranks in the top ten in frequency of deployment.3

In times of stress, it can be hard to figure out the right thing to say. How do you talk to your partner, your children, and other household members when stressful events like these happen?

Meet stress with a positive outlook

Your stress level is directly related to your perception of events. Researchers have found that when you can stay positive in times of stress, the situation will feel more manageable. How your children see you respond to stresses will be very important.

Perhaps you’ve just lost your health insurance, becoming one of the 9 percent of Mainers who lack health coverage, and you’re waiting to join the 246,605 Mainers who receive Mainecare benefits.4 If you handle the stress with creativity, humor, and a positive outlook, your family as a whole will feel less emotionally strained.5 Working together to come up with alternatives as a family will also help to include all family members in the process.

To remain positive, it helps to remember what’s important to you and make a list. Post small reminders — photographs, inspiring quotations, daily affirmations — on the refrigerator or on your desk. Have a friend or family member to call when you are feeling down. Take 10 long, deep breaths before you have a stressful conversation. Be kind to yourself.

Talk your way through change

When families are under stress, it’s important to understand that changes are okay. Stress will change the way you manage your daily activities, but your family can adjust and learn to function in new ways.

A job loss, deployment, or other changes may create different routines. You may have more time at home, someone new may be picking up your children from school, or meals may need to change to new times.5 Talk with your children about any big changes to the daily schedule. Write down the new schedule for everyone to see, and remind your children how important they are to you and to the family.

If money is tight, the basics become more important. Things like heat, food, and rent become priorities, with less money available for gifts, toys, and entertainment. With the instability of prices for heating fuel, groceries, and gasoline, you may want to save money for the future, if you can.

Talking as a family can help ease the pressures of having less money. Stay positive, and be careful not to make your children feel overly responsible for problem-solving. Ask for their ideas about fun things to do that don’t require money, as well as new ideas for gift giving, like handmade gifts, or gifts of time rather than things.

Reassure children that even in hard times, you are a family, and keep the focus on the good of the family. Try the following steps to family problem-solving.

Four steps to problem-solving with your family6

Open dialog can help families meet adversity effectively together. When children are asked for input, they are more likely to feel confident that adults are making decisions in the best interests of the family. Trying this four-step process may make it easier for you to come together to adapt to stressful changes. At each step, there are certain questions that are helpful to ask.

Step 1. Define the issue

  • Does everyone in the family see the issue in the same way?*
  • Does the family fully understand the issue or is more information needed?
  • What family values seem to be important in this situation?
  • What parts of the situation does the family have the ability to respond to?

Step 2. Consider all possible alternatives

  • *How many different responses to the issue can family members think of right now?
  • What other possible sources of information, help, and guidance could be helpful in identifying additional options?
  • What are the foreseeable negative and positive consequences related to each of the alternatives?

Step 3. Select the best alternative

  • Can the family feel comfortable choosing one course of action to follow, knowing that there are still others that could be chosen?
  • If family members cannot agree right now, how long do dissenting members think it will take before they are ready to make a choice? If one family member chooses not to make a choice, can they trust the adult(s) to make the decision?
  • What additional information do family members need before deciding?
  • How does each member feel once the choice has been made?

Step 4. Move forward

  • Are all members who helped decide what to do willing to accept the responsibility for, and consequences of, the choice that is made?
  • What practical plan or activities are required to put the choice into action?
  • Which family members will be responsible for carrying out the plan, and what are their particular responsibilities?
  • At what point in time will the effectiveness of the choice be evaluated?
  • As a consequence of the choice, what related decisions may need to be considered?

When times are tough, Maine families of all types can learn about their strengths. Mainers can lean on one another to get through hard times. During times of stress, keeping a positive attitude and communicating with one another about options can keep your family healthy. This means being honest about the situation, and looking for creative and new ways to adapt.


1 Maine Department of Labor, “Maine Unemployment Rate 6.3 Percent in November,” news release, December 18, 2008.

2 Maine State Housing Authority, “Maine Homeownership Facts 2007,” Maine Housing Facts (Augusta: 2008).

3 Veterans for America, Maine National Guard Report (Washington, DC: 2008).

4 Kaiser Family Foundation, “Maine: Demographics and the Economy 2006–2007,” (Menlo Park: 2008).⊂=151&rgn=21.

5 C. Segrin & J. Flora, Family Communication (Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2005).

6 Four-step process adapted with permission from A. Soderman & I. Hathaway, Moving Forward: Difficult Conversations for Farm Families, Extension bulletin E2059 (East Lansing: Michigan State University Cooperative Extension Service, 1987).

Information in this publication is provided purely for educational purposes. No responsibility is assumed for any problems associated with the use of products or services mentioned. No endorsement of products or companies is intended, nor is criticism of unnamed products or companies implied.

© 2009

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