Seventeen-year-old Hellen Abraham is worried about her father. A taxi driver, he works at the airport and used to bring home three to four hundred dollars a night. Now, she says, "he might bring home $100 or even as little as $35."
Calvin Wheeler's parents own several houses and have renters. The income pays for Calvin's car loan. But that money is evaporating, as tenants, unable to afford rent, are moving out—and Calvin is concerned he'll soon be without wheels.
Erin High says her hours at a local jewelry store have been cut from 30 to 15.
Hellen, Calvin, and Erin are all students studying economics at Western School of Technology and Environmental Science, a magnet school in Baltimore County. As they listen to their teacher, Jonathan Richmond, they learn terms like "underemployment," "government bailout," and "national debt." But the words the students use to describe the recession are far more personal. They tell of worry, fear, and uncertainty.
Teenagers all around the Baltimore area are living the reality of this recession along with their parents. They're watching as moms and dads worry about possible layoffs and struggle to make ends meet.
Even in the best of times, teenage years can be stressful. Kids fret about after-school jobs, getting into college, and new expenses like car loans. High school seniors worry about the cost of the prom, tuxedos, dresses, yearbooks, class rings, and a graduation cap and gown.
When you add in family financial hardship, experts say it can create real anxiety in teens' lives that can result in lower grades, aggressive behavior, or worse.
As the recession threatens to grow deeper, those who specialize in mental health say it's up to parents and even teachers and school advisers to help children make it through these hard times.
Just how much do teens understand about the recession? To kids whose parents have not been greatly affected, it may be little more than a story on the news. For others, it may amount to minor inconveniences, like having less money to spend on clothes and accessories. But many students in Mr. Richmond's class see something far more threatening. They're watching their parents struggle with the threat of unemployment and the financial anxieties that accompany it.
Does it scare them? Eighteen-year-old Chris Collins says, "I try not to show it, but yeah."
Michael Lindsey, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the University of Maryland's School of Social Work and School of Medicine. "These are highly stressful times," he says. "Families are struggling all the way around. We tend to be more adult-focused and think about how the recession is impacting adults, but we don't really look at the family or the impact on children."
Lindsey worries about how kids will deal with these troubles. "As families continue to struggle," he explains, "kids might be at risk for anxiety or depression."
He says one of the first indicators that a teen is struggling might be his or her report card. But lower grades aren't the biggest threat. "You might see them acting out with verbal or physical aggression toward their peers or siblings," he says. "You might see an increase in drug experimentation or sexually promiscuous behaviors."
Some kids, seeing their parents struggling emotionally and financially, might cope by assuming a caretaking role. Hellen Abraham, for one, says she tries to offer her father money from her own paycheck from the nursing home where she works part time, but "he won't take it." But she did recently buy her 14-year-old brother an iPhone because she didn't want her parents to spend the money.
Licensed clinical social worker Debbie Marks, who practices in Towson, says when a kid takes on the caretaking role, "It wears on them emotionally. You want your child to have the experience of being a kid, and they can't do that if they feel they have to take care of their parent."
To kids in Baltimore's inner city, financial hardships are nothing new.
"Financial struggle is a persistent being in their lives," says Lindsey, who studies the effects of poverty on teens. Kids in the inner city may have genuine concerns about foreclosure and losing their home. They may have additional concerns, like parents who use drugs or a family member in prison. But even in these extreme cases, there is hope.
"Consistently, I find that a strong social network and feeling supported tends to protect kids from negative or adverse emotional psychological outcomes," he explains. He sees a lesson there for kids who are struggling in this recession.
"Families need to reassure kids that things are going to be okay," he says. "I think this is an opportunity for families to talk more about the struggle of working together to get through tough times. It certainly can be a bonding force for families."
Even families that aren't struggling much financially can use the current recession as what Lindsey calls a "teaching moment."
Jheni Gibson, a 17-year-old student at the Bryn Mawr School, was surfing the Internet a couple of months ago, searching for a dress for her junior prom. "I looked for one that wasn't too expensive," she says. But the one she really liked cost $500. Her mom, salon owner Sharon Garnett, told her no.
"I explained that we're trying to have more of a budget today, so let's try to find a dress that's just as nice for under $500," Garnett says.
Garnett believes the recession gives her a new reason to stress lessons she has tried to teach her daughter in the past.
"I explained that's why we're in a recession, because people mishandled money and spent inappropriately. This is a time when I can teach her to spend money wisely," she says.
Saying no may be uncomfortable for parents. But experts say perhaps this is a good time to move our kids away from the growing obsession over clothing labels and the need for the latest, coolest stuff.
"This may be a great lesson for children and for us as adults," says Marks, "because indulgence has really hurt our children. We've confused wants and needs and have created a sense of entitlement. Having to sacrifice can be character-building. We can teach our kids that who they are is not based on what they have."
Jheni seems to already understand that. Was she upset when she couldn't buy the prom dress she wanted? Not really, she says. "My mom sacrifices a lot for me and always has my best interests at heart, so when she says she doesn't have it, I understand."
Of course, this is not the first time children have seen their parents struggle with financial hardship. Many youngsters growing up during the Depression saw far worse. But experts point out differences between the children of the 1930s and those of today.
First of all, kids in the '30s weren't exposed to nonstop TV news coverage of their situation. What's more, during the Depression, kids were mostly sheltered from adult concerns. As Marks says, "There was more of a boundary back then. Today kids see and hear lots more and feel more of the upset."
And then there's the casual materialism of today's youth. "Kids have and expect so much more financially and materially than kids did during the Depression," Marks notes.
But Kriste Lindenmeyer, Ph.D., sees similarities between the two generations. The chair of the Department of History at UMBC, she's written a book called The Greatest Generation Grows Up, about kids raised during the Great Depression. As Roosevelt's New Deal helped kids of the '30s, she says it's up to President Obama to do the same for this generation.
"I think the 1930s show us we can make a difference for young people," Lindenmeyer says. "If something isn't done to help our schools do better, make college more affordable, and improve access to health care, [this] could become a lost generation."
In a best case scenario, however, Lindenmeyer says these kids may emerge from this with a more realistic expectation of the future. "Every time kids come of age when there's a downturn in the economy, I think they have a better grasp of the reality that capitalism doesn't always guarantee an upward rise to opportunity," she notes.
The students in Jonathan Richmond's classes seem to be living that edict. They hold down jobs, expect to go to college, and are making plans for the future. Hopefully, they'll one day look back at this as a time when they learned they could struggle and come out on top. But just like adults, they have a lot of uncertainty.
Ask 17-year-old Erin High what the recession means to her and she sums it up this way: "You just don't know what's going to happen."