Since the global financial crisis hit in 2008, many families find themselves struggling to protect children and adolescents from the stress that accompanies loss of parental employment or reduced household resources. There's reason for concern, according to a new World Bank report, Children and Youth in Crisis: Protecting and Promoting Human Development in Times of Economic Shocks. The study finds financial crises can have serious, long-term health, social and behavioral implications for children and youth, from conception through young adulthood.
I asked one of the report's editors, World Bank child and youth development consultant Alice Wuermli, to answer a few questions about why it's imperative to buffer children and youth from financial stresses, and what kinds of policies can help this population thrive.
Q: Why is it important to consider the impact of financial crisis on children and youth in particular?
A: During childhood (starting at conception) and through the adolescent years, the brain is developing rapidly, and socioemotional and behavioral development are at their peak. This makes children and youth vulnerable; the effects of stress during these periods of development can last a lifetime. We know, for example, that maternal stress and depression during pregnancy and the first two years of a child's life have been linked to low birth weight, failure to thrive in early years, and lower educational attainment in adult life.
In later childhood, children need to develop basic skills and competencies, including the ability to learn and reason systematically and to initiate autonomous relationships with teachers and peers. These skills play a significant role in shaping their later success in school, work, and personal relationships.
We also know that difficulties transitioning to the world of work are associated with life-time lower earnings, higher rates of unemployment, and worse mental and physical health in adulthood.
Q: Can you describe how financial crises can affect children and youth at different life stages?
A: We know that economic crisis can cause resource constraints for some families; but even perceived threat of unemployment or lower earnings can cause stress and a deterioration of family functioning.
During pregnancy and early childhood, nutritional deficiencies and other health problems, but also stress and mental health issues of primary caregivers, can lead to serious physical and psychological problems, some of which may not be reversible.
During middle childhood, children's cognitive, socioemotional and behavioral development may suffer from deterioration of family dynamics and positive and consistent parenting, lower investments in learning and stimulation within the home, and a reduction in quality of teaching and the learning environment in schools.
Adolescents can be affected through limited and unpredictable employment opportunities, parental unemployment and deterioration of family dynamics, and lack of adult role models outside of the family. These can interfere with their development of healthy autonomy and their ability to plan and achieve personal goals.
Q: What kinds of policies help children and youth maintain their health and well-being in times of crisis?
A: Programs that both protect and promote young people's development need to be particularly sensitive to the developmental needs at different stages of life, covering issues ranging from nutrition to mental health.
From the time of conception, we need programs to ensure adequate nutrition for pregnant women, as well as programs that provide counseling to pregnant women and new mothers to maintain healthy mother-infant relationships during stressful times. Cash or in-kind transfers to households need to ensure funds reach the most vulnerable. These can be coupled with counseling and parenting support, and need to avoid stigmatization of recipient households.
In-school or after-school programs can support socioemotional and behavioral development of children. Ensuring timely payment of teacher salaries, and providing tools to effectively manage classrooms, can prevent deterioration of the learning environment.
In the adolescent years, programs to facilitate youths' transition to work should provide mentoring and specific activities to support development of healthy aspirations, productive vocational identities, confidence, and an ability to plan strategically and achieve goals.