Talking to Kids About Layoffs and Tough Times

by | Feb 22, 2010 | Late Breaking News, Trauma, Grief, Post-Traumatic Stress

I’m sure you’ve read those dismal reports about job insecurities: the U.S. unemployment rate is now at the highest level since 1993. We are stressed and worried and rightly so, but so too are our kids.

I’ve received a number of email queries lately from parents asking for guidance. And did a segment on the TODAY show, “Daddy, why did you lose your job?” Let’s face it, these tough financial times are forcing many parents to answer very tough questions from their children. Here are just a few:

Why did you lose your job?

Will we be able to eat out?

What will I tell my friends?

Will we still be able stay in our house?

How can I go to college if you don’t have a job?

Parents tell me they are trying to avoid answering those heart-wrenching kid questions. They just can’t face telling their kids they lost their job, may have to give up their house or tell their teen they can’t go to college.

But keeping kids in the dark about something so serious as a job layoff is a huge mistake. First, children come equipped with built-in radar and notice those hushed conversations and pick up on your tension. They may even feel they somehow caused your stress. And hearing such an immensely personal family problem from anyone other than you is plain unfair and could well break down the trust between you and your child.

Believe me, your children are far better off hearing this news straight from your mouth. Regardless of how difficult this is, the truth must be told. So where do you begin such a tough topic as a job layoff or financial crisis to a child? Here are a few guidelines to get you started.

  • Prepare what you want to say. Doing so will help you feel more comfortable and seem less tense. And those are how you need to appear to your kids.
  • Be on the same page with your spouse. Your kids deserve to hear the same message from the two of you. Put those disagreements aside and put your kids front and center.
  • Find least distracting time when all family members are present. Set aside enough time that allows your kids to ask as many questions as they need to ask.
  • Keep the explanation simple and age appropriate. Young children are literal so watch your terminology. “I lost my job,” may make a kid wonder: “So why don’t you find it?” “I was fired” might mean someone is trying to shoot you. “I was let go” could be construed as why your friends didn’t grab onto you tighter. Terms such as layoffs, recession, foreclosure, and downsizing confuse a teen. You might start with a question: “What have you heard?” or a simple explanation: “I don’t have a job anymore so for a while we won’t have as much money to pay for things.”
  • Describe potential impact on your family. Most kids’ prime concern is how this personally affects them. So be honest and clear about any foreseeable changes. For instance: Dining out less. Not going to movies. More bag lunches. Less allowance.
  • Take questions seriously. Answer each as best you can. You can always say you will get back to them with the answer. Take as much time as needed to talk about the situation.
  • Be prepared for any response. Some kids will shut down. Others might be angry or cry. This is not the time to discipline or try talking them out of their feelings. Acknowledge their pain, confusion, anger or hurt. Then tailor your response to their response.
  • Explain your plan for new employment. Kids don’t need a lengthy discussion so just briefly explain that you’re seeking a new job and it may take awhile. Knowing that you have a “plan” (even if you have no idea what to do) helps kids feel secure.
  • Involve your kids so they feel they are part of the solution. Asking them for cost-cutting ideas to help your family reduce costs. For instance, mention that turning off the lights will conserve energy. Then ask them for other suggestions.
  • Keep the discussion going. A one-time talk won’t be enough for your children to absorb what is happening. So let them know that you are available any time to discuss this or answer their questions anytime.
  • Try to appear optimistic even in the worst-case scenario. Your children will be watching your behavior closely and take their lead from your attitude. Your aim is to give your kids the impression that you’re confident everything will turn out for the best. (And that’s even if you’re a nervous wreck inside).

In difficult times it’s often not what we say but how we say it that matters more. Children are usually far more resilient than we give them credit for. What they need most in any tough time is reassurance and security. I was in Michigan recently speaking with a group of parents who had all faced recent lay-offs and all had had to have that tough “I just lost my job” talk with their child. I asked my mom how her daughter took the news and the mother said something very telling.

“I spent hours preparing what I’d say to my child,” the mom said. “I took the phone off the hook. Arranged for my sister to watch the baby so we wouldn’t be interrupted. I even checked out a library book called, “Tough Times” to read together. But I blew the key point.”

“What was that?” I asked.

“I didn’t think things through from my daughter’s point of view,” the mother said.  In all my preparing I didn’t stop to consider what she’d be concerned about. At the end of my talk ,the only question she asked me: ‘Will I still get to sleep in my own bed?’ It killed me. I spent the next hour just holding and rocking her and telling her we’d be okay.”

Remember, the point that matters most in your talk: “No matter what, you’ll be safe. We’re going to make it through this together.”

Don’t forget to take care of yourself especially during these times so you can take care of your kids.

For more parenting solutions refer to my website, Michele Borba, follow me on twitter @micheleborba or turn to the following chapters in The Big Book of Parenting Solutions with more specific solutions which may apply to your situation including: Angry, Depressed,  Money, Communicating, Teased, Dependent, Fearful, Bullied, Peer Pressure, Stressed, Worried About the World, or Separation Anxiety.