Explaining Unemployment to Kids
Tempted to try to keep your -- or your partner's -- job loss a secret? Don't. "Children, even those as young as 2, can sense there's a crisis, whether you tell them or not," says Kate Roberts, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist specializing in school psychology. If you don't say anything, your child may jump to conclusions: You're mad at her, you're sick, or you and Dad are getting a divorce. Therefore, it's best to come clean. Just be careful about what (and how much) you say because too much information may cause more anxiety. Before you begin explaining unemployment to your child, get your emotions in check and use our experts' advice to make the discussion easier for both of you.
Keep it Age Appropriate
Hearing news of a job loss is already difficult for kids. Words like recession, downsizing or layoffs will make it even more confusing, says Jayne Pearl, author of Kids and Money Guide to Resilient Children: Teaching Kids to Thrive in Any Economic Environment. She suggests customizing what you say based on your child's age and maturity level. Toddlers and preschoolers need only a simple explanation: "Mommy's work doesn't need her anymore, so I will be home more often." Elementary-age kids may need additional details, but keep it basic: "Daddy doesn't have a job anymore because the company closed." You may have to be more specific for pretweens and older kids: "The company is trying to save money so they had to let some people go, and I'm one of them." Regardless of your child's age, give her an opportunity to ask questions.
Skip the Blame Games
It's natural to be angry if you or your partner was fired, however, don't point fingers or vent within earshot of your child. Doing so will only cause him additional stress. If you must badmouth your former employer or whine about the lousy economy, talk to your spouse, call up a trusted friend or write in a journal.
If you're the reason for the job loss, whether or not you spill the beans is a personal decision. "I don't think it's necessary to 'fess up, but depending on how it's presented, it can be a very powerful lesson for the child," says Pearl. If you decide to tell, she recommends saying, "I made a mistake at the job and sometimes there are very bad consequences for even little mistakes. I've learned a lot from the mistake and it won't happen again." Admitting to your slipup teaches your child that everyone messes up and it's important to accept responsibility for our actions. Since kids can blame themselves for what occurs in their parents' lives, let her know she isn't responsible.
Discuss the Effects
Even though your child is concerned with your feelings, he still wants to know how this will affect him. When explaining the ramifications, Pearl recommends saying something like, "We all are going to need to make a few changes to help us get by during this difficult time." Then outline the major changes. For instance, if you will have to move or the child will have to stop going to daycare, let him know. You should also mention smaller sacrifices, like eating out less or having the family movie night at home instead of a theater. Don't bombard him with every little change, but give him an idea of what to expect. If a friend asks your child why he can no longer go to the arcade every weekend, let him know whether it's okay for him to share the news of Dad's job loss with friends or relatives, and if so, which ones.
Reveal the Plan
Even if they're upset about the upcoming adjustments, what children want most is security. Make sure your child knows you love him and will still be able to take care of him. Then let him know what's in the works. "Mommy is looking for a new job," is all toddlers and preschoolers need to know. For kids in grade school, say, "This is a hard time but we have money in the bank, and Dad is looking for a new job." With kids ages 8 and up, you can be more detailed, "Although this is a hard time and we have to cut back on some things, we do have money in the bank, and your Dad has lots of experience as a...He's looking for a new job, and we expect he'll be working again soon."
Let them Help
Don't be surprised if your child offers to sell some of his toys to help the family earn money. Let your child be part of the process in a way that won't overburden him. Younger kids can play quietly while you do a phone interview; an older child can assist with chores or by reading a book to his little brother while dad searches the internet for jobs. Kids can also lend a hand with the decision-making. Tell your child you need help coming up with fun things to do that don't cost a lot of money. Or ask for ideas to help the family save money. Allowing him to be part of the brainstorming session will help him feel empowered -- and he may offer some good suggestions.
Kids depend on predictability and order for a sense of security. During a big change it's important to demonstrate normalcy by maintaining routines, says Dr. Roberts. Although you may be tired, stressed, or feel your time would be better spent filling out job applications, sticking to the usual mealtimes, naps, bedtimes and any other daily routines will help your child feel secure.
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