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Hard Times: What Can Therapy Offer?

The Bower Place Complex Needs Clinic see clients who are grappling with multiple issues that may see them engaged with a range of systems. For example, a parent may be addressing drug and alcohol issues and be involved in the justice system, another a major mental health diagnosis and a child experiencing difficulties at school resulting in suspension. With global concerns about the risk of recession, increasing prices of goods and services, and escalating rent many clients also present with economic strain, a perception that they do not have adequate resources and worries about current and future financial situation. What can therapy offer?

This question was addressed by Fonseca et al (2023) who recognized that young people and families are particularly vulnerable to macroeconomic hard times and undertook a study to explore how families with emerging adult children can overcome economic distress. They explored the link between economic strain, whole family level dynamics, and quality of life as reported by emerging adults and their parents. The study involved 1017 young people within 334 families living in Portugal.

Three main findings emerged from the study. The first unsurprising result is that economic strain contributed to lower quality of life regardless of family members sex, Socioeconomic Status (SES), and income. However, the relationship between economic strain was not higher for lower SES families compared to higher which shows the importance of assessing subjective perceptions of client’s financial situation both currently and into their future. The authors suggest that economic strain may be a more global stressor independent of income.

A second key finding explored family members role and age on the link between economic strain and quality of life and showed a greater impact on children than parents. One explanation is that thinking about a future, including a financial future, is a key task for emerging adults. The possibility of not gaining financial independence impacts quality of life. Older parents also experienced greater impact on their quality of life.

The final and perhaps most useful finding for practitioners is that family rituals buffered the effects of economic strain. ‘The repetition of meaningful family ritual interactions, such as gathering for dinner and reconnecting with extended family in special annual celebrations, may constitute a key family dynamic, providing family members a sense of security and normalcy’. By contrast family problem solving communication did not change the impact of economic stress. In essence families who are frightened ‘can benefit more from meaningful family practices (e.g., dinnertime and birthdays) that promote stronger feelings of belonging, connection, and mutual support, than from addressing their problems through more verbal and explicit forms of family communication’.

As practitioners we cannot change financial circumstances, however we can be aware that many clients are frightened of both their current and future economic situation. Some clients may benefit from referral to services which directly address and manage the practical issues they face.  In addition, allowing this to be a part of the therapeutic conversation for all our clients, especially young adults, and strengthening acts which connect and support within the family are useful and practical interventions.

Fonseca G., de Sousa, B., Crespo, C., & Relvas, A. P. (2023). Economic strain and quality of life among families with emerging adult children: The contributions of family rituals and family problem-solving communication. Family Process, 00, 1–17.

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