Talking to kids about job loss: What to say and how to say it

May 14, 2020

If you or your partner has been laid off or furloughed from your place of employment, you’re far from alone: The economy lost more than 20.5 million jobs in April, according to the U.S. Labor Department. If you’re also a parent, you’re likely contending with day care and school closures, as well as challenges associated with stay-at-home orders. So it makes sense that you might be unsure if sharing unemployment news with your child will only serve to compound or exacerbate existing stress. But experts agree: Parents should talk to kids about job loss.    

Donna Housman, a clinical child psychologist and founder of the Boston-based Housman Institute, an early childhood training, research and advocacy organization and its lab school, Beginnings, explains, “Children are emotional detectives. They pick up on our emotions and what we are feeling — not just by what we say, but also by what we do, by our expressions and by our actions. We need to be honest with them.” 

Let’s explore the case for discussing job loss, talking to your child in an age-appropriate way about it and navigating the emotions triggered by this turn of events. 

Why it’s important to talk to your child about job loss

Every child needs to be assured that they are safe and secure, says Housman. You can do this by acknowledging that you’re contending with a difficult change and unpacking everyone’s emotions around it. 

“If you evade or tell them that you are taking time off or are on vacation, they will know that your actions and the emotions you are expressing do not align,” says Housman. “They will see, for example, that your words do not match the effect they are picking up on your face, your body language and the tone of your voice.” It also won’t match up with any memories they have of previous times you’ve been on vacation.

For those reasons and the benefit of a child’s long-term emotional well-being, it’s best to be direct. “When we can align what we are feeling and experiencing with what we are saying, it helps not only to validate our child’s trust in themselves but also in their judgement, promoting a strong and positive sense of self,” explains Housman. Plus, by helping children identify how they feel, we help them build a sense of confidence, she points out. 

Additionally, acknowledgment of a disappointing situation teaches kids about resilience and adaptability. “This is an opportunity to send the message that we as a family can get through whatever comes our way,” says  Jane Timmons-Mitchell, a doctor of clinical psychology and clinical associate professor in the department of psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University’s School of Medicine in Cleveland. “Kids learn resilience from other people, and job loss is a good opportunity to call on that skill and instill it in kids.” 

How to keep your approach age-appropriate

A toddler will read your emotions and experience the downstream effects of job loss differently than a tween, so you can shift how you tackle the topic to suit the individual  needs of each child.  

Tips for toddlers

Focus on their immediate experience

The younger the child, the more you want to focus what you share on how it’ll affect them, explains Timmons-Mitchell. “The words that you use need to be focused on how it affects their experience because that is how they see the world,” she notes.

For example, Housman says a toddler might notice you seem upset and disengaged and say, “Why are you home but you won’t play?” To that, you might say something like, “It’s not about me not wanting to play with you, and I understand that it’s making you sad that I’m not playing with you, but right now, I need to spend some time on the phone looking for a job. Let’s come up with an idea together with what job you can be doing while I’m on the phone. After I finish these calls, we can play together, and I know that will make you happy and me too.” 

Work on developing delayed gratification 

If a toddler-age child asks for a toy or experience that’s not in the budget right now, you can manage their expectations by suggesting that they wait until the holidays or a birthday, advises Irene Little, a doctor of psychology from Frisco, Texas. “This teaches delayed gratification, an important skill that is developed, which will have a long lasting and positive impact on personal development, follow-through and completion of tasks,” says Little. “This is a great opportunity to reset expectations and motivations for our kids.” 

Use their toys or shows

Toys or TV shows can help a young child understand how things may/will change, suggests Victoria Nungesser, licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist in Newtown, Connecticut. 

“Take a stuffed animal or action figure and role-play a similar scenario in which the child can better understand the change,” she suggests. “It can feel safer for them because it’s a form of play therapy versus the news just being directly shared.” Nungesser also suggests watching or taking advantage of resources from Sesame Street, given that the show covers an array of timely issues that families face.

Advice for elementary school age children

Explain that it’s a transition

Unlike toddlers, this age group has a sense of time, phases and change, says Jeanette Raymond, a Los Angeles-based psychotherapist who holds her doctorate in clinical psychology. “They have successfully transitioned from kindergarten to homework in grade school, perhaps from riding a tricycle to a bike or having one sibling to more,” she explains. 

Raymond encourages parents to underscore this theme. You can liken it to breaking a leg and having to stay off your feet for a while to heal. “It’s something you didn’t intend to happen but have to deal with,” she notes.

Ask questions

To avoid bringing up concerns they might not have thought of on their own, let them lead the way. “You can ask them what they already know or assume and then correct any misinformation,” says Carrie Krawiec, a licensed marriage and family therapist at Birmingham Maple Clinic in Troy, Michigan. “This helps you learn what they already know, what gaps to fill in. You can ask questions like, ‘What have you heard?’, ‘What do you think that means?’ or ‘Is there anything you are afraid I might say?’”

Then, note that the way they are thinking and feeling is normal and that you understand why their hopes and fears are what they are, Krawiec suggests. 

Be straightforward

“It’s important to explain any implications job loss will have for them,“ says Niro Feliciano, licensed clinical social worker, a psychotherapist and anxiety specialist. For instance, it might mean making changes to how you’re spending money. “Have a discussion and conversation about what that might look like for your family,” she suggests. “It’s important that we’re honest with kids this age, but also reassure them that this is normal during this time for many people, they are not alone and that this will not be forever.”

Ideas for tweens and teens

Search for solutions together

Whether budget constraints mean they can’t get new sneakers or a video game console, or they’re feeling a lost sense of security or independence when you’re spending more time focused on the household versus work, teens or tweens might express resentment or anger, says Housman. Anxiety could be in the mix too. 

“Recognize your child’s feelings for what they are and reassure your child that he or she will be OK,” suggests Housman. If behavioral issues pop up, calling their actions out as inappropriate is key, but then, guide them to solutions. 

You can suggest certain fixes, but make sure you include your child’s ideas in the process, Housman says. This is another way to validate their emotions, which will help to alleviate any big feelings they’re contending with. “When your child’s emotions are being listened to, understood and validated, it reduces the intensity of the emotion and leaves him with the experience of feeling more in control,” explains Housman.

Note that difficult emotions will pass 

It’s easy for tweens and teens to get caught up in black and white thinking and stuck feeling that any negativity they are experiencing now will last forever. “Help them recognize that emotions are not static,” says Housman. “They will change. Anger and sadness will not last forever — especially when we are able to talk about our emotions and find solutions to what’s causing them.”

How to manage your anxiety and theirs by extension

Avoid brushing tough feelings under the rug

“If children see that we are stressed and having difficulty managing how we feel or are worried about our future, they will absorb some of that stress and worry about their future as well,” says Housman. “But if they see that we are managing our stress and that we believe it will be OK, they will be more apt to feel the same. We are their models and have the ability to teach and guide them toward healthy behaviors.” 

This is a case for being aware of how you feel and reassuring your child that you’re working on solving the problem in a calm, self-assured way. The result: reduced anxiety and bolstered confidence for both of you. 

Actively address stress 

Although your focus might be trained on finding new work and keeping the household running smoothly, Housman encourages parents to care for themselves during this challenging time. 

“Find ways to manage how you feel and to find calm and joy,” she suggests. “Take deep breaths, meditate, read, talk with friends and exercise. Remind yourself that you will be OK and so will your children.” The more you do this, the more you might see your behaviors, language and the way you express your emotions reflect that. 

Zero in on the present and the positives

Doing your best to focus your attention on the present moment and taking the situation day by day can preempt spiraling, “worst case scenario” thoughts. And focusing on any benefits that unemployment might lay the groundwork for, such as time to spend with your children or to take a class that will allow you to hone professional skills, can quash anxiety, says Feliciano. 

“But if the anxiety is preventing you from being able to function in your daily life and complete daily tasks, it’s time to talk to someone for help,” she notes. 

Consider checking out the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)’s extensive resource and information guide, which includes a variety of tips and pandemic support resources, such as 7 Cups, Emotions Anonymous and warmlines.

How to embrace the upsides, whenever possible

Addressing a difficult turn of events like job loss with your children might feel like adding fuel to an already unmanageable fire right now. But Housman encourages parents to reframe the challenge as an opportunity. 

“Learning how to understand, be aware of and manage our emotions is critical to our lifelong well-being and mental health,” she notes.” All of us carry emotions of anger, happiness, sadness and fear throughout our lives, and learning how to recognize those feelings in ourselves and in others can help us learn how to manage them.” That way, your children will be even more prepared to face down adversity that could arise down the road.  

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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