Breaking through generational poverty: ‘Chaos in the head usually also means chaos in the house’

Children growing up in poverty often end up in a similar situation as adults. Tilburg researchers want to break through this vicious circle in the Strongest Schakel project. By using neuropsychological insights and intensive guidance, they help parents get a handle on the future. Starts in Waalwijk municipality.

Breaking through generational poverty: ‘Chaos in the head usually also means chaos in the house’
Dick van Engelen, Robin van Woensel, Marion van den Heuvel (left to right). Picture Ton Toemen

A life of money worries is a daily routine. Making sensible future-proof decisions often proves difficult for people who have to cope with (too) little. As a result, their lack of money often becomes chronic. Researchers Marion van den Heuvel and Robin van Woensel (Tilburg University) and family coach Dick van Engelen (Waalwijk municipality) try to map and strengthen the Waalwijk families’ social and economic self-help in the Strongest Schakel project. Not by telling them what to change, but by listening carefully and going with them for a while.

Dick van Engelen: Family trainer

“There are those moments where you walk into someone else’s living room and think: wow! The week before it was still a big mess and now it has been cleaned up completely and nicely painted. When people take that kind of step forward, it’s just super fun.

“Participants come to us through the social support department in Waalwijk municipality. For example, when after a divorce they seek help to get their lives back on track, and it quickly becomes clear that there is also a lot of debt. Only families can attend, so one or two parents with growing children. Composite, single parent or traditional, it does not matter. However, there must be financial scarcity.

Dick van Engelen. Picture Ton Toemen

“We are not talking about poverty. The image that this expression evokes creates a barrier to participation. ‘I do not live in poverty, for I make ends meet every month,’ you hear. Yes, that’s right, but then there should be nothing wrong with it, because otherwise you will quickly get into financial trouble.

“Our last participant is such a person. She is working her way up to the snot and had gotten some nice savings. Until her son went to work and also provided an income. The tax authorities immediately stopped all reimbursements and recovered everything from the past year.

“Mrs. lost her savings in one fell swoop and was below the poverty line. So it is a family that at first glance looks good: a nice house, a small car in front of the door, the children are well dressed, and the house looks tidy. And yet it turns out to be a very vulnerable situation.

“The first step we take is to reduce chronic financial stress. This is where the greatest anxiety lies. Chaos in the head almost always means chaos in the house. There is rubbish everywhere. The mail piles lie unopened between the advertisement brochures. We therefore start by organizing: what is old paper, what is relevant post, what can be disposed of? By mapping income, expenses and debt, an overview is created.

“Planning, organizing and making decisions are difficult during chronic unrest. People sometimes make difficult to understand choices. Buy a car or flat screen TV when there is no money at all. Is it smart? I do not have an opinion on that, or at least I do not air it. I ask the question: what can you do to pay for that thing? What kind of job should you apply for? And is that job enough to pay the fixed costs and that car? I train on that part.

“If you succeed in reducing chronic stress, you will feel that there is room for other things. People are again aware of their environment. Cleans out in a full barn, looking for a nice sofa on the Marktplaats. These are also steps that I take with the participants to get them started again. But in the end, of course, they have to pick it up themselves.

“After the ‘relief phase’, we enter the propulsion phase. We examine: who are you, what do you think is important, and what direction do you want to take with your life? I help them make it a concrete goal. Formulating your own goals and taking small steps forward leads to a tremendous sense of motivation and initiative.

“The last step is to achieve financial self-reliance. For some it means: I manage my finances and never get into debt again. For the other: I still find it very difficult and I am happy for an administrator who makes sure that I get living money.Both times the vicious circle in which people were trapped has been broken and a structural change of behavior has been achieved.

‘Sometimes there is disappointment. Then you think it’s going well, but someone falls hard back after an incident. Still, this is a dream job for me.

“I have worked in the health care system for 43 years, but after two big burnouts I thought: I do not want this anymore, I have to look for something else. Early retirement, a job in another department? Until a supervisor pointed me to this job. I read the vacancy and thought: it actually says ‘we need you!’ I am at the end of my working life that I can do it now is a gift from God. It’s the best job in the whole world. ”

Marion van den Heuvel: neuropsychologist and chief investigator

“It’s important for people to know more about how your brain works under severe financial stress. So there is more understanding of so-called ‘stupid’ decisions that people sometimes make. Not paying your bills or buying an expensive dress when you do not have enough money for groceries. Seen from a defective brain, these actions are not so strange.

“At the front of your brain, behind your eyes, is the prefrontal cortex. A patch that is very important for the skills that enable you to perform effective behaviors. We call them executive skills. Keep track of your finances, procurement, make a healthy meal. Or just do nothing, hold back. You may be eager to buy new clothes, but remember that it is not a good idea right now. Executive skills are important to ensure that everything runs smoothly. in your life.

Marion van den Heuvel. Picture Ton Toemen

“The moment you have a lot of money worries, those skills become fewer and fewer. Not because you do not have them, but because of stress hormones, this part of the brain works less well. Other areas take over and remain in activity mode. There is then a continuous area of ​​the brain shouting: there is danger, help, we have to do something!

“You get exhausted from stress, and you often struggle with sleep deprivation. This puts you in survival mode. In that state, it is very difficult to make wise choices in the long run. You will primarily think in the short term: I am now hungry and going for a fat bite.

“In generational poverty, we see that if parents get out of poverty, there is a good chance that the child will also end up in it. Various studies have shown that it is very difficult for a child to fight from it.

“Lack of money and the associated stress affect a (unborn) child in many ways. As a result, the baby starts already in the womb with a significant delay. It has a less healthy mother with too high heart rate and blood pressure, who often eats unhealthily and produces many stress hormones.

“After birth, the baby grows up with less nutritious food and less good things. And with tense or depressed parents who may respond less sensitively to children’s needs. One sees the consequences of this not only in the brain but in the whole body of the child. Growing up in a family with big money worries is something they take with them for the rest of their lives.

“Sometimes you say that poverty is someone’s own fault, or that you just have to take your chances. I can get very angry at those kinds of comments. This is not a fair start at all. People coming out of a situation of poverty have to work much harder to get anywhere. I really think we need to take people more by the hand, stand by them, to lift them out of poverty. I want to work hard for that.

“I have written many beautiful publications in recent years. Yet I also regularly wondered: who should actually read this? That’s why I’m looking for projects that bring you closer to people. Investigate what happens to it. This project is very useful and if the results are good, we want to extend it to other municipalities. Ideally, there will soon be a family coach in each municipality. ”

Robin van Woensel: project coordinator and junior researcher

“Recently I had a recording interview with a new participant and she said, ‘I come from a family that has always lived in poverty. I’ve never been richer than I am now, but it does not feel that way. I’m wondering the time if we can do it ‘.

“I see in her subjective poverty. She has enough to cope with as long as unexpected things do not happen, and yet there are always those money worries. The ever-present fear that you do not have enough. She really got it from her parents.

“When my parents divorced, I also lived in financial hardship for a few years as a child. We often went to my grandfather and grandmother to eat there. Not just for fun, but because there was little at home. Therefore, I am moved by what I hear. Because I know what they’re going through, and I know how kids can have it. You would not want that.

“It simply came to our notice then. Also in the way of parenting. If you have a lot on your mind and your son or daughter keeps asking: Mom, mom, mom? Then you can imagine someone reacting a little more violently: just let me be! You have less room to pay attention to your child and to give love. Children feel it.

Robin VanWoensel. Picture Ton Toemen

“The family coach, Dick, works from a stress-sensitive approach. Among other things, by acknowledging that stress is there: ‘I notice that your tension level is very high, should we discuss it first? Then we have to see what we do for the rest of the day. ‘

“He literally also helps solve problems that they can not solve themselves, such as cleaning up a crowded shed or looking for another washing machine because the old one is broken.

“The family coach will stand next to them instead of them having to do it all themselves. In this way, we try to create stability. Rest your head so we can get started with executive competencies such as planning, organizing and self-regulation.

“Participants can receive coaching for three years. From the start of participation, I take neuropsychological tests at fixed times. Not only the parents complete these tests, but also the children if they are old enough. They play different games to map attention and working memory, but they also fill out questionnaires about health and quality of life.

“After the three years, we hope that everyone gets better at these executive skills and reports a higher quality of life. Worry less, better in their own skin. Of course, we also want to know if they have and experience fewer money problems.

“I often saw that I had a hard time as a child, as a negative thing. In this project, it works to my advantage. When I come to people’s homes, they feel comfortable with me. They start talking right away and are not ashamed.

“Many of us can find ourselves in a situation of money worries, even though we are not always aware of it. My parents divorced during the financial crisis in 2008. We owned a house, my father had his own business, and my mother had a good job. But the company collapsed, my mother became ill from stress and the house turned out to be unsaleable. Then it goes very fast. Then suddenly there is no more. ”


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