Growing up on a farm offers young people many more enriching life experiences than most of their “city cousins.” But farm life isn’t always idyllic, and farm kids can carry the burden of challenging times in ways that are harmful to their own development, and sometimes even their safety.
Farm parents, and other caring adults who regularly interact with farm kids, should be on the lookout for signs that farm youth may be shouldering too much stress. A helpful bulletin from Michigan State University lists these warning signs:
- Acting out (physically, verbally or out of character)
- Mood swings
- Excessive sleeping
- Lack of motivation
- Excessive tiredness
- Trouble sleeping
- Tension (muscles in back or neck)
- Changes in eating habits
- Excessive sickness or absenteeism
- Stomach problems
- Unusual neglect of personal appearance
- Experimentation with alcohol and/or drugs
- Change in normal routines, temperament or behavior
- Change in friends who influence in negative ways
- Loss of interest in extracurricular activities
- Deterioration in academic performance
- Dropping out of social engagements
“Because business and family are so closely intertwined in farm life, children in stressed farm families may worry excessively about what will happen to them and their families,” said Randy Weigel, Professor Emeritus with the University of Wyoming Cooperative Extension Service. “They may have heard their parents arguing. They also may fear their parents will divorce, that they will be homeless, or that their parents will become violent.”
Weigel added that farm children may become isolated and neglected emotionally, because their parents are engulfed by the struggles of the farm. “Parents may become extremely busy in a desperate attempt to save their source of income, and also may be trying to keep their situation hidden from the rest of the community,” he shared. “Such conditions can isolate children from parents who are too busy to notice, and from neighbors who are not even aware of their suffering.”
Caring adults – whether parents or other adult role models – should be intentional in their efforts to support farm kids living through stressful periods. Suggestions from Weigel, along with Larry Tranel, Extension Dairy Specialist for Iowa State University, include:
- Model healthy behavior. While conflicts in challenging times are normal, escalation into violence or emotional abuse can be a source of unhealthy pictures or perceptions that may become rooted in a child’s mind forever.
- Assure children that whatever is happening is not their fault.
- Express appreciation for their positive efforts, behaviors and contributions to the family and the farm. Communicate clearly that they are valued and loved.
- Share empathy rather than sympathy. It is important to acknowledge kids’ struggles, but do so in an empathetic way that shows you understand their feelings and fears. Showering them with sympathy (except in cases of extreme grief) can cause them to feel sorry for themselves. Expressing empathy can help show kids that their feelings are valid, and that others care and understand.
- Acknowledge challenges and share age-appropriate information. Children are keenly aware when things are amiss in the family, and sheltering them from bad news can cause mistrust rather than protection. Give kids the opportunity to appreciate the real concerns of the family, sharing details and engaging them in discussions appropriate to their level of maturity.
- Provide opportunities to help children escape the stress and “let them be kids,” even if just for a few hours.
- Help kids develop a personal plan to proactively do their part to work through a stressful period. Age-appropriate chores; helping with younger siblings; doing laundry; and preparing simple meals can help children feel valued and hopeful, while cultivating their resiliency.
- Seek professional help from a school counselor, doctor or member of the clergy if children continue to struggle.
“Challenges in life are normal, and can push children to do things that promote healthy growth,” said Tranel. “At the same time, they need to know that adults do not expect them to carry the world on their shoulders. A one-minute chat, a gentle hug or a reassuring word may be the best way to communicate with youth under stress.”