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Hard Times: Family struggle

Children should be allowed to help through difficulty

Editor's note: This is the third in a series of stories about how the recession has affected the lives of Northern Shenandoah Valley residents.

By Garren Shipley - gshipley@nvdaily.com

Until recently, the housing industry was very good to Jeff Carter.

Carter, of Strasburg, worked for an excavation company that did contracting for major homebuilders. During the boom years, there was work to spare -- 60 hours a week, sometimes seven days a week.

But when the region's housing market collapsed starting in 2007, Carter's job went with it.

"You felt it coming, but we had a lot of work on the books. It was the cash-flow thing we didn't know about," he said.

Land owners couldn't pay for the work they'd contracted because of cash-flow problems. From there, the crunch rippled down the line until it landed in the laps of Carter and his co-workers.

His employer "came in the day after New Year's and said 'That's it. We're done,' and closed the doors," he said. "We were doing the work, but nobody wanted to pay."

Carter's family expected the downturn to be temporary.

"When I first got laid off, yes, it hurt, but we had money in the bank," he said. "Me and the kids spent some time at the pool. We thought I'd have a job in a few weeks."

Carter filed for unemployment and started to look for work. The $330 per week he drew from Richmond put food on the table, while his wife's job paid the bills.

* * *

Six months after Carter's job went away, hopes for a short downturn have been dashed.

"There's just nobody hiring," he said. "I filled out an application [at Winchester Medical Center] for maintenance. They got 602 applications."

Similarly, an opening with the town of Strasburg drew more than 200 applications.

"If you get a call-back or an interview, you're lucky," he said.

Helping the family adjust to the loss of income has been a challenge.

"You try to hide it at first," he said. "But the money's not there. Things are tight. That causes stress at home."

Carter says they were all spoiled by the good times.

"I was making over $60,000 a year, and [his wife] Tammy was making $40,000, so there wasn't much that you couldn't tell them 'no,'" he said.

Now, "you cut the McDonald's out a lot," he said. "You find time to take the kids to the playground. ... My daughter just didn't understand why."

For all the fear the layoff caused, the biggest concern was the loss of health insurance for his children, Carter said. After a two-month gap, he enrolled them in a state plan.

"With insurance, when they get a cold you take 'em to the doctor. Without it, you try the Dimetapp and hope they get over it," he said.

Carter still doesn't have health insurance for himself.

"It's crazy, the cost is crazy. It doesn't do any good to complain about it," he said.

Soon after, the second punch hit -- foreclosure.

"Dummies, we did the adjustable-rate [mortgage] thing," he said. The interest on their Front Royal home started to climb rapidly.

"It went from 7 percent to 17 percent to 23 percent," he said. "We tried to sell but just couldn't get what we owed on it."

Now, Carter does odd jobs around the neighborhood to help bring in additional money. But it's a poor substitute for his old job.

"I try to mow some yards and do things like that. But I can't afford day care or baby-sitters anymore, so [the children] come with me," he said.

"If I didn't have kids, I might leave the state to look for work," he said. "You have to do what you have to do for your kids."

* * *

Talking to children about financial hardships can be one of the most difficult parts of losing a job or a home. But it's much better to let children know what's going on than to try to hide it, according to Dr. David Daniel, a professor in James Madison University's department of psychology.

"We're not that good at hiding things. When we feel frustration, anxiety, when we feel scared, our whole family knows it, they just don't know why," Daniel said.

That can lead children to blame themselves.

Children "see all these things going on and [they] don't know why. When they ask about it, [adults] kind of push you aside and then you know something is going on," he said. From there, "imagination can take over."

"Unless they're really young -- under 2 -- they're going to notice things. It's a question of matching your explanation to their developmental level," he said.

A child's primary concern is for their physical security, Daniel said.

"They need to feel like they're not going to be in danger, have anything bad happen to them. That's what parents do for kids," he said.

Telling children what's going on doesn't mean letting them see how worried you are, he said.

"Be general, but confident about things, so they understand the things that are going to change: 'Things are going to be just fine, but we're going to have to make some changes.'"

Above all, give children a way to participate in fixing the problem.

"Give them control so they feel that they're not to blame, they're actually part of the solution," he said. Ask children to help come up with ways to save money or ways to cut back.

"Young kids adapt very well, as long as they're feeling safe," he said.

Older children will likely have some idea of what's going on in the world, and may not be caught by surprise.

"They know the news," Daniel said. "Let them know you're not unique and it's happening to other people too."

"Teenagers are so intensely comparing themselves to their friends," he said. It's important that they realize that they're not the only ones being impacted by the downturn.

Older teens need to be given as much control over the situation as possible.

"Some people freak out, tell them they have to get a job," Daniel said. It's "better to make them feel like they're in control and have them help figure out, 'Here's the bottom line, how can you help us make this happen,'" he said.

If the family is losing their house, let the children come along to the new rental and help pick out their room.

"The younger they are, the more they [need to] feel like they're helping," Daniel said.

The hardest part for parents, though, might be keeping a stiff upper lip until the children go to bed.

"It's important for Dad to know that he has to keep his intense anxiety for his social support system," he said. "Your kids aren't your social support system. You're theirs. You don't want to share your anxiety with your kids, you want to share your concern.

"It's something they can't help you deal with emotionally."

* Next: The economy boosts enrollment at area colleges.

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