Savvy Parenting

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Parents Should Tell Their Children When They Lose a Job

Parents help their children when they tell them about a job loss.

Although job loss is most devastating for the newly unemployed, it has a significant impact on those around them, namely their family and their children. When parents lose their job and are at their most vulnerable, often they don’t know how to share the bad news with their children.

Many parents would rather avoid the whole conversation and when they do tell their children, they don’t know what to say or how much to share. Here are some guidelines for parents and practitioners when managing parent unemployment in families.

Communicate directly. A parent’s job loss is a family crisis and it’s impossible to hide from a child. Children as young as two years old can sense there is a crisis. Parents can talk in an age-appropriate manner; a three-year-old does not understand "budget" the same way a tween or teen does. With children of all  ages communicate a message that they will be taken care of despite the job changes. Regardless of how parents feel inside, they need to demonstrate optimism and hope.

Reframe job loss. One way to frame a job loss is to emphasize that there will be more chances to spend quality time together. For example, watching movies or playing games at home together rather than going out to the theater.

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Keep the message balanced. Sometimes parents get confused about how much to share. It’s a balance between putting it all there- fears and all- and keeping the kids informed. For example, a child  may display his fears by asking “What if you are not working my September, can I still play sports?” An appropriate response is something like “I don’t’ see that being an issue, but if it is, I will do my best at the time”. The parents need to demonstrate they have a plan that can work.

Allow the children choices of what to give up. Parents can empower children by allowing them to choose what items they will sacrifice for overall good of the family. This can be empowering for a child who typically doesn't have control and input into decisions.

Be aware. Parents need to be aware of signs of worrying in their children. Parents should try to find out what's going on and avoid minimizing changes in children’s behavior; some children will worry regardless of reassurance and parents should pursue counseling to determine how to address this anxiety.

Stick to routine. Losing a job is a life crisis and the stability of the daily routine takes on new level of significance. Routines like mealtime, nap, the structure of day should remain consistent to demonstrate normalcy. This communicates a message of that “we are an intact family, even though Dad is out of work”, in a way that mere words cannot.

How much information is too much? The reason why somebody gets hired or fired in today's world is very complex. Keep explanations general and simple such as “It wasn't the right company for me”.

Teach greater responsibility and build self-esteem. In the aftermath of a job loss, the stress in the house is greater than before. Children can be instrumental in reducing stress and find ways to be more helpful in this very difficult situation. Examples include: Allowing the parents space and time to look for jobs; always writing down message correctly; and helping parents with chores so that they can focus on their job search.

Parents need to remember that when there is a family crisis- whether it's unemployment or something else - the child will sense it. When parents fail to communicate directly, children fill in the blanks with the worst. Parents don't realize this and instead they think that they're helping their child by keeping them from knowing the crisis is present. But in the end they are giving their child permission to worry about the worst case scenario because that’s naturally where child's brain goes.

 

Kate Roberts, Ph.D., is a consulting school psychologist and former professor of psychiatry at Brown University.

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