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Tell It Like It Is

Cites a report in 'American Journal of Community Psychology' that low-income single mothers are more likely to disclose financial or personal worries to their child than middle-class two-parent families. Researchers Vonnie C. McLoyd (University of Michigan) and Leon Wilson (Wayne State University); How kids react to hearing about problems.

Should a parent confide in a child to the point of disclosing financial or personal worries? The answer, says a team of Michigan social scientists, depends on what side of the tracks you live on.

Middle-class two-parent families believe they should protect children from life's harsh realities. But low-income single mothers think that letting their kids in on their struggles is a plus because it lets them know exactly what they're up against.

"The notion that childhood should be a happy time is not so common among poor parents," reports psychologist Vonnie C. McLoyd, Ph.D., of the University of Michigan. "They're less likely to sentimentalize childhood and more likely to see happiness as a luxury item' "

McLoyd, along with Wayne State University sociologist Leon Wilson, looked at 155 low-income single moms to see how poverty affects the parent-child relationship. One finding: poor kids grow up prematurely, partly because mothers see their role as helping children to prepare for the worst by letting them know just how harsh life is.

Trouble is, listening to their mothers' laments makes kids less able to play the hand life has dealt them. It sets them up for emotional problems, the team reports in the American Journal of Community Psychology. It puts kids at risk for developing a range of anxiety disorders or symptoms of stress--from nervous tics to difficulty concentrating in school to increased aggressiveness.

How kids react to hearing about problems also depends to some degree on how a problem is presented. A mother who complains is likely to arouse anxiety or sadness in her children. But if she discusses a problem in the context of finding the best solutions, children may have more positive responses.