When Parents Lose a Job: Talking to Kids About Layoffs

by: Katy Abel
Learn what to say to your child when you or your spouse has been laid off.
Table of contents

When Parents Lose a Job: Talking to Kids About Layoffs

Pink Slips and Blue Moods Affect Children
Stock market meltdowns, dot-com deflations, bull and bear markets -- it's all lost on kids. But as America'slong-running period of prosperity loses steam and reports of layoffs make headlines, the term "economic downturn" is literally brought home.

John Q. couldn't bear to tell his teenaged son about being fired. For days he got up, put on a suit, left the house, and drove around until after his son had left for school.

On the day Jennifer L. was laid off, she went home and made paper-bag puppets with her toddler and preschooler.Once the art supplies had been cleared away, the single mother found herself fighting back tears. Sitting alone at the kitchen table, she began scribbling numbers on the back of a puppet, looking for ways to cut household expenses.

When Catherine B.'s six-year-old son learned that she'd lost her job, he asked a friend in kindergarten if his family could move in to her house, "because we won't have any money to live in our house anymore."

What to Tell Kids
Job loss creates anxiety and economic hardship for families. For advice on how to talk with kids about layoffs, we consulted three experts -- here's what they have to say:

Carolyn Hoyt, editor at Working Mother magazine: Telling them proactively what's happened is probably thebest thing to do, because they're going to see that Mommy's not getting up and going to the office, or Mommy's mad at Daddy. What happens when you say nothing's wrong is that they'll perceive the truth anyway, and then they won't trust you at exactly the point they need to.

Ellen Galinsky, president and founder of the Families and Work Institute in New York: If there's something going on but it's not being talked about, then it's a whole lot scarier. Bring up how you feel about it -- I'm upset, I'm angry --- but also say what you're going to do about it, what your coping strategies are.

Robert Waldinger, M.D., child psychiatrist on the staff of Boston's Judge Baker Children's Center and Harvard Medical School : I think the child sees work through the parent's eyes. When the parent conveys the message,"these things happen, people change jobs, we'll be okay," that's what the child needs to hear. Try to present things realistically:"While I'm looking for a new job, we'll have more time to do things together, but then when I get a job things will go back to the waythey used to be."

What Not to Tell Kids
Ellen Galinsky: Little kids misunderstand much of the language. "Fired" -- that's with a gun. "Laidoff" -- it just doesn't make sense.

Robert Waldinger: Cross bridges when you come to them, not before. I wouldn't say, "We may have to sell the house." Only share the uncertainty the child needs to hear about. Don't put the child in the positionof having to worry about losing his bedroom.

Carolyn Hoyt: You need to have important conversations out of kids' earshot. You don't give a childspecific financial information he's not requesting, so it's important not to say things like "We don't know wherewe're going to get next month's paycheck."

How to Make Kids Feel Secure
Robert Waldinger: The best thing parents can do for their child is to take care of themselves, because the mainquestions for children are: Are my parents okay? Is my life going to be able to go on? Alcohol abuse and domestic violencego way up when people become unemployed. It's those things that tend to make a child anxious, more than the loss of a job,which tends to be a more distant thing.

Ellen Galinsky: It could backfire if you are overly positive about a job loss, saying things like "Now I havemore time to spend with you." We tend to think in either/or terms -- job or family. "You're important to me whether I'm workingor at home" needs to be the message.

Carolyn Hoyt: Don't make important changes, like potty training or moving to a "big girl" bed because such transitions may cause a child to feel insecure.

Life Lessons Learned
Carolyn Hoyt: Losing a job is never a good thing, but this is a chance for children to learn what resiliencylooks like, how a family sticks together in hard times. Kids may want money to go to the mall. You can say, "Things have changed and we can't buy that right now."

Ellen Galinsky:Whether we're heading into a downturn or a recession, that's not a bad message for children -- not being able to buy, for example, PlayStation 2. It teaches an important lesson about money.

Robert Waldinger: Concretely, the best way to address this is to let your child know that you think he's wonderful, by offering love, affection, and consistent limits. Consistency is probably the most reassuring thing for them. Making things predictable, keeping the family dinners or the Saturday activities you always enjoy, will help children cope with change.