Addressing Fear and Anxiety in Times of Uncertainty

In general, life and the world at large are cyclical. Everything old is new again and the cycle continues.

We enter 2019 at a time of turmoil politically and economically. Many of my colleagues have noted over the past two years that we are seeing more anxiety, more anger, more uncertainty. If one likes the current administration, the anger is at the perceived unfair treatment given to our president. If one dislikes the current situation, there is anger attributed to chaos. Truth is, the only certainty is change, and the pendulum will swing and the world will survive.

I’ve been practicing long enough to see cycles come and go and to have health with many issues going on in the world that have an impact on my patients. My effort to go from part-time to full-time private practice began in August of 2001. My open house was scheduled for 9/13/01. You can imagine how well that went. Today 2001 is a memory, but the September 11th attacks come up every year — for patients who are 9/11 survivors to young adults who remember being on lockdown at school and want to hear an adult’s perspective of what that day was like. 2008 saw the housing market crash and the economy nosedive, and I spent time with some young patients explaining how mortgages work and reassuring them that there was a big gray area between a five bedroom house in the Manors and homelessness, and that their family would be fine, even if one parent lost a job.

So, here we are again, ten years from our last economic downturn, facing what is known as a “bear market,” with stocks tumbling, global trade in flux, and uncertainty about what this, as well as new tax laws will do to local housing in the county with the. People often ask us psychologists how to handle certain things with their children — how to explain world events, how to put things in terms that children can understand, how to ease their fears. Here are some tips for 2019:

  • First, and most importantly, what is your child asking? What is he anxious about? Your child does not need a dissertation on the current state of affairs, but needs to feel secure and stable. That may mean different things at different ages, but even your budding college student wants to know that his room will be there at the end of the semester and that he won’t have to mop floors to pay for college.
  • Second, put things in age-appropriate terms. Acknowledge your child’s anxiety about what he may be hearing, and with social media and a cell phone in every pocket, your child is more up on the news than you ever were as a child. There is no need for your child to know your net worth, but explaining that you are willing to work in whatever ways possible to support your family goes a long way.
  • Put things in perspective. Brighter kids are often the more anxious ones because they have the cognitive skills to understand what they hear and read, but lack the maturity to calmly ride out the cycles. They have never experienced a recession before, or tumult in the White House. I’ve told kids, “Dr. K. grew up in an apartment. Dr. K. is fine,” because for some children, hearing that people can “lose a house” prompts fears of a Dickensian era with children begging on the streets for stale bread and parents dying of consumption. While many are at risk for severe struggle, most of us are at risk of downsizing but not homelessness, pay cuts but not zero income, and belt-tightening, not starvation. Unexpected outcomes are not always terrible — when the economy went through its 2008 troubles and people’s college funds shrunk, the SUNYs became more competitive, driving “better” students to the public schools as parents tried to save money. The schools rose to the occasion and many of our wonderful public schools began to get the respect they deserve as excellent options of higher learning (full disclosure: CUNY grad here! Yay Brooklyn!).
  • Set a good example. There is no doubt that the country and the world are currently in turmoil. Brexit threatens the European economy, our trade with Asia is up in the air, immigrants are fearful of what the future holds. But we all live day to day trying to do the best we can. Show your children what you are doing to prepare for a rainy day. Let them know how to save money. Let them know that there are things that are necessities and things that are wants, and sometimes you can get by with less than you think. Show your kids what’s really important in life. Hint: it’s not a hot tub or a new car.

All indications are we are in for a bumpy ride for a bit longer. We, as adults are anxious, and children feed off of that anxiety. Of course we all want to know the world will continue to be safe, but the world doesn’t work like that — in the life of cycles, we are now in a time of uncertainty. Your children will follow your lead.  Of course we are all concerned—I obviously worry about people having good health insurance, income so I can get paid, those new SALT laws, and our relationship with our allies.  Someone without significant home equity is concerned about the housing market.  Another who works for a global corporation may worry about a job being outsourced.  We are all worried about something at any given time.  My experience with kids, however, has shown me that kids want to know that their microcosm of the world is OK. It’s even more OK to let your child know the cycle continues and you’ve been through enough ups and downs to know that you just ride it out. I tell so many of my 12th graders, as they anxiously apply to colleges and worry about planning out their entire lives, that the road of life is a zig zag, so get over the whole planning every inch thing. That’s as true in 2019 as it ever was.

Have a very happy and healthy coming year.  Roll with the changes.

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