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What can we do to help kids handle the unique stresses of farm life?

Most adults can hardly fathom the stress of being a teen today.

With one social media post, your position in the volatile food chain of high school status could change. With college tuition soaring, you feel constant pressure to ace your college admission tests. Your still-maturing teen brain is exposed to more information in a single day than a 1950s teen experienced in a month, and yet you’re expected to make sense of it all.

Factor in the fact that your family owns a farm, and the stress may double. You grow up hearing how your great-grandfather somehow hung onto it through the Depression and how much it means to your family. You are expected to take on enormous responsibilities early — whether that means getting up at 5:30 a.m. every day to help with chores, taking care of livestock or driving a $150,000 piece of equipment.

Your feelings about the farm are wrapped in love and anxiety. No one, except perhaps another farm kid, could understand the independence and joy of this self-sufficient life. Yet your family seems to function around an unspoken fear: What will happen if we lose the farm? The farm is everything. Would you cease to exist?

These were just a few of the concerns of farm kids communicated by Monica Kramer McConkey, a licensed professional counselor, during a recent workshop on farm youth and stress, which was supported by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and several partners.

Kramer McConkey, a former farm kid whose Eyes on the Horizon Consulting specializes in educating and advocating for rural folks experiencing farm stress, offered keen insight on why rural life can be doubly hard on teens, and what we can do about it. One point is that the parental stress is often experienced by kids without adults even realizing it.

Even if parents are careful to not outwardly share their fears with kids, many can pick up the tension when they walk into a room and Mom and Dad suddenly stop talking. They notice Mom crying or Dad’s worsening irritability. They overhear conversations such as why they didn’t get an operating loan, and they may be left to try and figure out what this means on their own.

What can you, as the parent, do?

• Be aware that trauma doesn’t just happen in wartime. A storm that destroys buildings and wipes out most of the crop, a financial scare that seems to threaten the family’s livelihood or any event that is so distressing that it can still trigger a deeply negative response — headaches, nausea, insomnia, isolation, flashbacks — long after it occurred could be trauma. Every effort should be made to make help easily accessible to the trauma victim, preferably with a counselor informed on trauma-informed approaches.

• Have “the talk.” We often expose kids to every aspect of the farm experience except for finances. This can be an opportunity to explain how farm finances work, while also reassuring kids and keeping it in perspective: “Your Dad and I always get nervous about finances every year at about this time, but we’ve always found a way to pull through it.” Or: “I know you’re worried about the expense caused by your accident with the tractor. Just know that you will never cost us what I cost my own parents in equipment repairs while I was growing up.” Just talking about it can erase the fear of the unknown and open up future communication and problem-solving.

• Acknowledge your own stress and, if it caused you to hurt them, own up to it. Explain why you’ve been moody lately; apologize if you treated them unfairly because you had to work marathon hours and couldn’t make it to their sporting events. This gives them the freedom to talk about their own emotional health and concerns.

• Help them troubleshoot and make a plan. Keep in mind that they are experiencing their own teenage stressors and that, because the “fight or flight” portions of the brain are especially active during adolescence, they may be awash in emotions and unable to problem-solve. This is a good opportunity to step in to act as their logical, problem-solving prefrontal cortex, which isn’t fully developed until a human’s in their mid-20s. Ask: What thoughts are behind those feelings? What action can you take to minimize that fear? Would it help if we made a plan, created a list of “to-dos,” mapped out a schedule or prioritized what’s most important?

• Help to erase the stigma of emotional suffering, and don’t be afraid to equate it to physical suffering. “If you had hurt your knee, we would go to the doctor. We need to take care of our brains and emotional health, too. Everybody hurts from time to time; it’s normal and it shows real strength to ask for help. We don’t need to tough it out on our own.”

• Strengthen your relationship with them. Even if your child is at an age where they seem to resist connecting with you, this is the time when they need connection to trustworthy adults. Encourage them to develop relationships with a trusted mentor outside of the family circle. Get to know their interests, enter their reality and meet them where they’re at. Realize that they are more likely to open up while engaged in an activity or driving in a car with you.

• Talk about what happens if the worst does happen. Yes, losing the farm would be significantly more traumatic than if someone works at an office for two years and then loses a job. But will the world end? No. It may feel like that and it may be hard to get through, but people get new jobs and figure out how to survive. Children can handle material losses if the factor that really is the most important to them — their families — is solid.

Learn more about ways for farm families to handle stress by contacting your state Extension services, primary care providers, county social service offices, churches and school districts. NDSU Extension currently offers extensive resources and worksheets on this topic at www.ag.ndsu.edu/farmranchstress.

For the First Link Help Line, call 2-1-1. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline (available 24/7) is 800-273-8255.

Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota (where, in the interest of full disclosure, I work) offers special farm-to-farm therapy through in-person or online telehealth options, which allow you to use a confidential computer connection to speak to a licensed therapist who farms with her husband. Call 701-223-1510 to learn more.

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