Amid the foreclosures, chronic unemployment and other fallout of the recent recession, a less obvious but equally worrying phenomenon has emerged: the troubled minds of children.

“Parents are struggling with their own issues and that spills over to their kids,” said Drew McWilliams, a clinician and chief operating officer at Morrison Child and Family Services in Portland, Ore.

Since the financial collapse of 2008, McWilliams said his clinic has seen an increasing number of children suffering from anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Of the 6,000 children that the center treats through in- and out-patient programs, McWilliams said many are trying to cope with the stress that results from persistent financial security.

Most parents don’t think children are affected by financial burdens. In a 2010 survey, the American Psychological Association found that 69% of parents said their stress had little or no impact on their kids, while 91% of children said they saw the effects in their parents’ behavior, which included yelling and arguing. The young respondents who noticed their parents’ tension reported feeling sad, worried, and frustrated.

The developing brain is more vulnerable to chronic stress than most parents may realize. New and emerging research hints at how a constant barrage of stress hormones can change the way the brain develops, causing behavioral and psychological disorders and putting children at risk for mental illness (such as major depression and PTSD) later in life.

Susan Lowery O’Connell, an early childhood psychologist in Ohio, runs a program that teaches parents about child and brain development and how to model self-control and resilience in their children. She admits this is not easy when families are facing financial struggles.

Still, parents and children working in tandem to build resilience appears to be key.

“Kids who face adversity have highs and lows, strengths and weaknesses,” said Christopher Sarampote, a program officer at the National Institute of Mental Health, who focuses on trauma and anxiety disorders. “Parents can really be strong agents of change.”

Additional sources: Rebecca Ruiz, 2011-2012 Rosalyn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow, Huffington Post, Employee Assistance Professionals Association.

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