In Brief

Severe and prolonged financial hardship can cause adults' marriages and parenting skills to deteriorate, which in turn harms their children's mental health--even if the family is wealthy or lives in a country with generous economic welfare programs, according to a recent study in APA's Developmental Psychology (Vol. 40, No. 3).

When Finland's economy plummeted into a four-year depression during the early 1990s, Tytti Solantaus, MD, of the National Research and Development Centre for Welfare and Health in Helsinki, and her colleagues collected financial and mental health data on 527 Finnish families--each consisting of a married couple and their 12-year-old child--already participating in an ongoing longitudinal study that was testing the children's mental health before the economy nosedived. Parents completed nearly 15 different psychological questionnaires about family situations, including fluctuation in income, employment history, spending on children, child-rearing practices, marital relations and their child's mental health. The children also rated their own mental health using a 112-item questionnaire.

Researchers analyzed the questionnaire results using the family economic stress model (FESM), a mathematical tool used in similar studies in the United States to evaluate the strength of correlations. Specifically, the FESM measures the extent to which economic hardship is both directly and obliquely responsible for causing a child's mental health problems. In the United States, the model has found that economic problems indirectly hurt children by causing parental pressures. Solantaus hypothesized that her data would not match the version of FESM seen in American studies because the two country's economies and social support programs are very different.

Yet the data fit the FESM. Despite Finland's greater support systems, reports of unemployment and budget cutbacks correlated with spousal hostility and lack of support. These problems mirrored a sharp rise in adolescent depression, aggression and disobedience from their pre-recession levels. Remarkably, better socioeconomic status was irrelevant: Wealthier families showed the same problems during the depression.

The replication of FESM supports the model's initial cross-cultural reliability, Solantaus says. "Even in this population, where social classes aren't that far apart, the finding that a change in family economy would produce such a change in child mental health is very important clinically," she says.

Solantaus adds that clear communication may be a family's best defense against discord during tough times. "Parents should talk about financial problems with their children and lay out what is happening in the family," she says. "That would ease the situation and help children understand what's going on."