We Americans like to feel we are a “can-do” nation, strong and adaptable. With jaw-gritting determination, we began after September 11 to adjust our horizons to a new world of risk and loss. But all it took to send us back to Ground Zero in our hearts was a plane crashing in Queens.
The stresses on your clients may be accumulating on many levels: the possible loss of friends, colleagues, or even family members; the lost sense of security in everyday life; and the backdrop of economic and market loss that may have drastically affected their plans for the future. Here are some ways to help them cope.
At a portfolio review session, a client who is a divorced mother of two asked me for advice about her young children. Even though her family knew no one who died in the recent disasters, the kids are having temper tantrums when she leaves for work, and refuse to sleep alone. She’s concerned about whether this reaction is normal, and if not, what she should do. Help! Whether or not the children knew any of the victims personally, it is very normal for them to experience these symptoms. Many kids are hypersensitive to what goes on around them, and they’ve probably tuned into the underlying apprehension that has swept over many adults in waves since September 11.
While reassuring your client that this reaction is natural, consider suggesting some resources that might help. Has she talked to anyone at the children’s school? If not, she might start by discussing her concerns with their teachers and guidance counselors.
Also, encourage her to keep talking to her kids about their fears. It’s not a good idea to paint an unrealistic picture that may fly in the face of alarming announcements they will hear about or see on TV. Instead, she should try to reassure them with truths suited to their ages and worries (“Sweetheart, brave soldiers from many nations are helping us find these bad men so we can stop them” or “Honey, haven’t I always come home from work?”).
If the kids won’t open up about their specific anxieties, she might try telling them a story (or acting it out with stuffed animals or dolls) about “other kids” with similar symptoms, asking her children to suggest why the imaginary kids are upset. For more in-depth therapeutic support, consider assembling a list of good psychological resources for children and adults. This mom may need a little counseling herself.
Eventually, you may be able to shift your client’s focus to her financial situation. But first address her worries about her children.
At the start of a year-end review of their investments and insurance, clients of mine erupted in a terrible fight. The husband complained that his wife is making his life crazy by overreacting to the threat of terrorism. She is extremely wary of crowds and unexpected mail, won’t travel, and insists on having a survival and evacuation plan. She accuses him of being in total denial about the danger. How should I deal with these folks? Remember that in times of high anxiety, people tend to revert to their oldest, most primitive survival mode. This couple is doing it in spades.
To address their reactions, you need to seat yourself emotionally smack in the middle between them. Assure them that even though the ways they are handling this stressful situation look extreme to each other, both responses are normal. Some people are comforted by taking action against the danger they fear, while others find it more calming to return as quickly as possible to the routines of everyday life. Both approaches can be healing.
If you’re willing to serve these clients as a “therapeutic educator,” ask if they can possibly move toward a middle ground. You may want to mention my comment about people’s tendency to retreat under stress to survival mode–which, although totally normal, is rarely the most rational or functional way to act. If you can help the husband agree to take some steps that will reassure his wife, and encourage her to pull back a bit from her hypervigilance, they may be able to move on to a discussion of their financial needs.
What can I say to a client who appears to have lost confidence in me? He says that after buying wholeheartedly into my view of stocks as the engine of investment success, he feels “betrayed” that I am now advocating bonds. Incidentally, his portfolio is down about 20% since the stock market’s height. How can I regain his trust? The difficulty of explaining a more conservative viewpoint has become a concern for many planners, and no doubt for more than a few clients. So before focusing on this particular individual, I would take time to consider just how many of your clients understand why you have changed your tack.
Have you written or called them to discuss the changing economic outlook and how you recommend coping with it? Some planners have invited their clients to group events or one-on-one get-togethers to thank them, calm their fears and soothe their losses, and communicate how to handle the changes life may have in store.