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Talking About Job Loss with Kids - How, When and What

by Anita Gurian, PhD

"U.S. Jobless Rate Rises Past 6%, Highest Since '03" New York Times, September 5, 2008.

In real terms, these statistics mean that more than 1.7 million people have lost their jobs. Many of the 1.7 million people are parents who have to deal with stress, anger, disappointment, and worry. They also are concerned about if, how, when and what to tell their kids.

Parents are usually advised to explain things to their kids with understanding, patience and encouragement to ask questions. The same principles apply when talking about job loss, but they're a lot harder because parents also have to deal with their own reactions. Although most want to spare their children and sharing the news is tough, there's really little choice. Kids usually pick up signals when something's wrong, and if they don't know the facts, they'll fill in the blanks with their own imagination or with misinformation based on media reports.

Listen to kids and answer their questions

  • Use questions to start to a two-way conversation

  • The questions kids might ask are sometimes a request for information and sometimes they request masks or conceal a concern

  • Provide information in an age-appropriate way and take your cue from the child

    • Children under 5 - Be simple and concrete. Children of this age are most concerned about their personal safety and need assurance that they will be cared for. They need to the job loss was not their fault and they've done nothing wrong.
    • Children aged 6-9 - Are concerned with right/wrong and may have difficulty understanding that job loss may be unfair. Provide information as they ask for it.
    • Children aged 10-12 - Can put facts together in more complicated ways and can understand everyday effects of job loss. Can contribute ideas to budget planning.
    • Teenagers - Capable of understanding the ramifications of the job loss and can discuss issues in more detail, understand more subtle effects of job loss, and be active in problem solving.
  • The best you can do is to answer your kid's questions honestly and squarely. Even teens are looking for security when they come looking for answers.

How parents can help

  • Maintain household routines as much as possible

  • Keep major changes to a minimum, although some may be unavoidable

  • Reassure children by letting them know you're taking action and job hunting

  • Have family conferences on how job loss will affect their lives:

    • Life style changes
  • Decisions about priorities for spending money
    • How each family member can help control spending
    • Other family members have to find jobs
  • Involve children in helping out at home - e.g., babysitting, household chores
    • but don't make them think they're responsible for supporting the family
  • Help children focus on the positive aspects of their lives

  • Be a model for your children - how to solve problems, how to deal with a crisis, how to make decisions. When they see you handle a situation with confidence they learn that they too can handle life's challenges.

  • Assure kids that losing jobs affects many people; it's a temporary situation - not a major disaster

  • Don't depend on kids for emotional support; let them know you're concerned, but sharing your feelings too much or too often can cause undue stress. Kids depend on their parents for security, and when parents are tense and upset they feel unsupported.

  • By responding to questions and concerns regarding the job loss in a truthful and respectful manner, parents help develop children's personal self-confidence, problem-solving ability and knowledge.
Date Published: September 10, 2008