Layoffs and Children

How job loss affects kids and what parents can do to help.

Introduction

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With a rash of layoffs sweeping the country, many families are confronting the stress of job loss. And it's not just a parental problem -- children are also affected.

"If the layoff is unsettling to the adult, whether it's expressed overtly or covertly, it can be distressing to the child," explains child psychiatrist Elizabeth Berger, M.D., author of Raising Children With Character. But it's not the layoff kids care about, she explains, it's the parent's reaction to it. "A child doesn't know what to make of the situation until the parent stamps it with significance."

Younger kids won't fully grasp what the job loss means and will simply want to know that Mommy or Daddy will continue to take care of their immediate needs: Will they still get their afternoon snack and be picked up from preschool on time? If so, they'll feel relief and happiness, especially if the parent spends more time at home.

Older children will have a greater understanding of the situation and may experience a range of emotions. They might feel a sense of responsibility and try to help out more, by starting a paper route, for instance. They may even blame themselves, says Dr. Berger. "Part of what distinguishes children from adults is that they think everything relates to them," she explains. Or they might express resentment and anger -- even shame -- at being deprived of their usual perks, such as outings with friends, fun toys and gadgets, or summer camp.

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What kids need is plenty of reassurance that they -- and you -- will be okay, says Elana Katz, family therapist at the Ackerman Institute for the Family in New York City. "It's important that the child recognize that the adults are the ones taking charge and not expecting the child to be alone with this problem or to try to solve it," Katz says.

Katz suggests the following approach when explaining a layoff: "I'm upset. I liked my job. But I'm going to take care of things, and we're going to be okay." Be careful not to promise that everything will stay the same, Katz points out, because many families will have to adjust their lifestyle. Instead, say: "I'm the grown-up and want you to know what's going on. If anything needs to change, you'll hear it from me first."

A parent should be truthful, says Katz, but needn't share all details or emotions with a child, which might prove overwhelming or confusing. "Develop enough of an adult network so that your main confidant is not your child. A few tears are okay, but it's not necessary to expose your kids to all of your feelings."

There's a bright side to a layoff, according to Katz. "If it's relatively short-lived -- even six months to a year -- and you pull together, it can be a model that's beneficial to kids," she says. "It says to them, 'Rough times happen, but we have a way of dealing with them and we can come through this and get back on our feet.'"

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