Image: Dr. Phil
Fred Prouser  /  Reuters file
Dr. Phil says "it is important to recognize that we are not in this alone."
updated 3/10/2009 3:51:03 PM ET 2009-03-10T19:51:03

Phil McGraw, better known as the television personality Dr. Phil, has promoted his specific brand of tough love since his first appearance on Oprah in 1998. On his syndicated talk show and through a series of bestselling books, he helps people with everything from weight problems to transgendered kids to cheating husbands.

Now, he's concerned about the way the financial crisis is affecting families and individuals. Money is often cited as the leading cause of divorce. And the stress from worrying about money can often lead to mental and physical illness.

Dr. Phil talked with Forbes about how to get through trying economic times. His advice: Talk it out, scale down and take responsibility for your own bad decisions.

Dr. Phil: I know there is a tremendous amount of fear out there right now. Fear of the unknown because no one knows where the bottom is. Many people are maintaining a vigil on news, all of which is rife with gloomy stories about unemployment, stock market problems and bank failures. As a result, I hear people constantly worry about how this is going to affect their ability to keep a roof over their heads and feed their families. The biggest challenge they face right now is the willingness to get very honest with themselves about the reality of the situation and acknowledge that they have to be willing to live much smaller and much smarter.

Q: How is this affecting families?

A: There are always lots of problems and challenges in raising a family. Those demands existed before the economic meltdown. Now, all of those pre-existing problems seem worse because of a financial overlay that seemingly threatens the family's survival. Family lawyers tell us that money problems are the No. 1 complaint in divorce. And this is the worst pressure cooker we've seen since the '30s. That means there's more opportunity for conflict which impacts the overall peace and harmony within the family.

We are already seeing an increase in divorce, domestic violence, anxiety and depression. I suspect before long we will begin to see an increase in certain types of physical breakdown. It is very important we have an open and fresh dialogue about the pressures and the resultant reactions.

Q: How do you suggest people cope?

A: It is important to recognize that we are not in this alone. It is very important that people feeling the stress and pressure give a voice to their feelings by talking to others in the same situation. The worst thing that can happen is to get a feeling of isolation and to withdraw from the support and understanding of others.

It has to be said that to every cloud there truly is a silver lining. And maybe the silver lining here is that this is a forced return to more fundamental values that we should not have moved away from. Now that many are forced to do "staycations" instead of vacations, families will be required to entertain themselves and get much closer than they have been in a more fast-paced glitzy life.

Q: How do you recommend people talk to their kids about the family's financial problems?

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A: I have two general rules about children. One: Never ask a child to deal with adult issues. Two: Never hold a child responsible for things over which they have no control.

With that in mind, I think it is important to inform a child about the realities of the family but to do so at a level that they can comprehend and respond to. You don't want to discuss with your child your inability to pay your mortgage, but you do want to discuss that everyone is going to have to make some sacrifices and contribute to getting through some difficult times.

It is also very important to give the child something to do that is appropriate to their age. If children feel like they are contributing something rather then just helplessly standing by, it can really alleviate fear and anxiety. A young child might be put on "light patrol" where their job is to make sure that no lights are left on in rooms that aren't being occupied.

Q: How can people protect themselves emotionally?

A: We have to recognize that we have contributed to our financial problems with our own choices. If we are living beyond our means, if we are absorbing all of both mom and dad's incomes to just get by, it is time to scale down. The rule of thumb of having six months of living expenses tucked away in case of an emergency is a great goal. In many ways, it is lifestyle and decision-making rather than just amounts of available money that created this problem, and those same things can become the solution.

Q: How do you deal with losing your money if you were ready to retire?

A: The reality is harsh. And the truth is that those that were retired may, in fact, have to try and return to an already unemployment-riddled workforce. I also think we may be seeing families consolidating under one roof more where grandparents may be forced to reside with their children because the ability to maintain separate households just may not be realistic during these difficult times.

Q: Do you think we as a society will fundamentally change?

A: I certainly hope so, because as I have said, we have contributed to this crisis with lifestyle choices and decision-making, and nothing short of changing how we measure success and live our lives will keep us from landing right back here in the future.

© 2012


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