Editor’s note: This article was written by Colleen Gengler, family relations extension educator at University of Minnesota, for the University of Minnesota Dairy Connection.

As we approach the holidays, we know dairy farm families have lived through low milk prices throughout 2009. It has been a very difficult year financially for many because of this. On the other hand, I was visiting with someone about the mood of dairy farmers. It is amazing how upbeat dairy people have been. However, that may be at functions outside the family farm. Usually it is within our own families that deeper feelings and thoughts come out. Knowing what and how much to share with children is especially important.

Children often copy their parent’s behavior. When parents cope well and deal with adversity in a healthy manner, children will do the same. When problems are kept hidden or not discussed openly, children will still sense and know that something is going on. Often, the situations children imagine may be far worse than what really exists.

Children’s reaction to situations will depend on how old they are and how much they can understand. With the complexity not only of the dairy operation but the many things that influence it from a national and worldwide perspective, we adults sometimes have a hard time grasping at solutions let alone explaining it to a five year old. Check the accompanying table for reminders on how children of different ages understand and perceive big problems.

It’s also important to consider signs of stress in children. These could be coming not only from the situation on the farm but also in combination with other things happening in their life at school or with friends. It’s helpful to put ourselves in our children’s shoes. What we may think of as a silly, unimportant event may actually be very stressful to the child. Overall, if children behave in ways that aren’t normal for them, it’s a good idea to try to understand why. Some typical signs of stress include:

  • Disorganization and difficulty focusing on tasks.
  • Lack of interest in self and others.
  • Aggressive, hostile or destructive actions.
  • Isolation and withdrawal from family and friends.
  • Sadness and crying.
  • Fear of many things.
  • Extreme obedience or compliance.
  • Immature behavior for the child’s age.
  • Physical changes such as unexplained aches or pains, weight change, sleep problems, or others.

What can dairy families do to ensure children are staying mentally healthy?

Make time for your children. Even in the midst of dealing with economic uncertainty or the day to day challenges on the farm, parents need to take time for an extra hug, listen to children’s concerns or simply do something together. It can be in the daily activities. For example, if children have calf feeding chores, offer to help. As we do tasks, talking is easier.

Speak simply and honestly about difficulties. Try to explain problems in language the child will understand. Keep in mind their age and maturity. Don’t sugarcoat a grim situation but don’t give false promises. If a major change is in the works, help prepare the child for how it will affect the family.

Maintain routines. Children rely on regularity in mealtimes, bedtimes, and other day to day events. Consistency helps give children a sense of stability.

Talk with children about how you feel. Don’t deny feelings as children are very good at picking up on emotions, but don’t overburden them.

Accept your child’s feelings and experiences. Don’t deny them their own feelings but allow them to express how they feel. Be a good listener and supporter, rather than trying to “fix” everything for your child.

Give children something productive to do. It is important they feel they are contributing to the family. As children get older, this becomes increasingly important.

Seek professional help. This can be very difficult as it puts into question our abilities as a parent. If a child shows persistent signs of stress over a long period of time or behaves in an extreme or severe way, parents need to seek assistance.

Having worked in the 4-H program for a few years, we used to joke about the green blood coursing through the veins of diehard 4-H families. Thinking along the same lines, the blood of dairy farmers and their families certainly must be milk white. Anyway, dairy families are in it for the long haul. We like the lifestyle, enjoy the cows and calves, and feel it is a great place to raise children. At this time of year, it can be helpful to focus on these long term values. Keeping positive but realistic with children, modeling healthy behaviors, and supporting children according to their age and ability will help keep them healthy.

Children’s Understanding and Perception of Big Problems



2 to 6 years

  • Feel helpless in the face of an overwhelming problem.
  • Because of their age and size, they lack the ability to protect themselves or others and so feel intense fear and insecurity.
  • Cannot grasp the idea of a major change or loss; for example, loss of a crop or loss of a favorite cow.
  • Re-enact a situation over and over or may think something is happening again when it was only a one time occurrence.

6 to 10 years

  • Has the mental ability to understand permanent changes or losses, but can become preoccupied with details of a difficult situation.
  • May ask endless questions about the situation; this can get in the way of other activities and tasks.
  • Can react to stress and difficulty in a variety of ways.

Pre-teen and teen, 11 to 18 years

  • Reactions and responses become more similar to that of adults as children get older.
  • Can be a mix of childlike reactions mixed with adult responses.
  • Teens might show more unhealthy kinds of risk-taking behaviors.
  • Can feel overwhelmed by emotions and may find it hard to talk with parents.

Source: University of Minnesota Cooperative Extension