A key component to running a family farm is based on the open relationships among the parents and their children. However, when times get tough, some parents may try to shield their children from stressful situations.

Failure to openly address those situations – whether a specific disaster or a long-term economic hardship – may result in negative consequences, according to Larry Tranel, dairy specialist for Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. He outlined four tips to establish strong family ties – and positive outcomes – in stressful times during a webinar titled, “What do we tell the kids?”

1. Communicate

“Communication is the glue that holds [the family] together,” Tranel said. Even though parents want to protect their children from the truth, it is better to be honest with them.

Failure to adequately communicate during a stressful situation can lead to transference, when children pick up on parent’s emotions, affecting their own moods, emotions and feelings. “[Children] probably are aware, and protecting kids is not always the best; mistrust can develop if they know the truth is not being told,” he said.

To keep children informed as to what is going on, Tranel said it is important to include them in family discussions. However, he warned, do not overwhelm them or share all the grim details. Provide them with simple and honest answers. Tell them the family’s needs and their role. Also, give them a chance to express their feelings because it is easy to misunderstand silence.


When speaking with them, “get on their level,” he said. If you are taller than them, it may seem intimidating, so sit down or get on the floor with them. You may want to hold a family meeting or dinner to discuss what is going on to ensure you’re all on the same level.

Nonverbal communication is just as important because it makes up 65 to 85 percent of the message. Unless you have a good poker face, your facial expressions, eye contact, gestures, volume and posture can reveal your own stress.

2. Make it understandable

Emphasis on helping children understand the situation will aid in decision-making, and help them deal with their emotions. Make sure to tell them in an age-appropriate manner, break down big words and do not sugarcoat things. Check to make sure they understand what is going on and have them verbalize how they feel.

Help children identify their emotions because it may be difficult for them to express, causing them to act out or talk too much. Tranel said anger is a secondary emotion caused by something else. 

 “[Children] may think they are responsible for causing a disaster or problem, and may associate it as some kind of punishment,” Tranel said. They need to be reassured it is not their fault.

3. Provide security and stability

“When the waters are rough, kids need support, security and safety measures,” Tranel said. “Make sure children know that they are not alone because you have their backs and they are loved.”

Keep their daily structure of life the same, including daily routines and family dinners.

Children often rise to the occasion in a crisis, so give them something to do. For example, let them know lower income will impact family spending, so let the kids come up with ways to save money. 

Also, parents must “get their act together” during a difficult time, because children feed off their parents’ emotions. Make sure they know “family is not the enemy” and “family and friends are the best medicine to get back to normal.”

4. Encourage

“Human nature focuses on not-good things,” Tranel said. “[We] let negative things define who we are.” The key is to have an optimistic stance, because there’s hope in every situation. 

Tranel said to help children notice and appreciate the “meaning” of good and small things in life. They will find greater happiness and satisfaction, even through difficulties. Call attention to children’s strengths, not just talents, and help them identify and use them.  

“Encourage each other daily while it is still today,” Tranel said. Examples include telling them they did a good job bedding or feeding calves. 

In order to see the good in a stressful situation, parents must change their own perception. “Research shows that those who can change their perceptions to more positive realities tend to be more resilient in stressful situations,” Tranel said. 

Working through stressful situations together can yield benefits, including giving children the opportunity to deal with their own difficult times in the future. And it can make the family stronger.

 “Pulling through adversity together will strengthen the family in ways that last longer, after the crisis has been resolved,” Tranel said. “Strong farm families have all been through a tough time together.”  end mark

Brittany Rennhack is a student at University of Wisconsin – Platteville.

View the webinar here.