How to Talk to Kids About Job Loss

Explain to your child why you're not going to work.
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While it might seem like you bear the brunt of the weight when it comes to losing your job, a parent must remember that it’s a situation that affects the whole family. Therefore, the entire family needs to be involved in supporting one another—and to do that you must talk to kids about job loss.

Although it’s tempting to keep the news under wraps to spare your children worry and stress, kids can sense when something’s wrong.

They’ll likely be even more upset when they discover that their trusted parents have been keeping a secret from them, and your kids may dream up worst-case scenarios if you don’t talk about what’s going on.

So take a deep breath and call a family meeting to discuss job loss and what it means for the household. Even if you’re scared, stressed, and frustrated, remember you don’t need to have all the answers before talking to your kids. Instead, you can simply explain what you know so far.

Prep yourself for this conversation. Be ready to soothe your children’s concerns while also helping them understand how a stressful life event, like job loss, may affect the entire family.

How Unemployment Affects Kids

Being in between jobs for a few weeks may be a little stressful for your children. But, once you re-enter the workforce, things are likely to return to normal and your children are likely to bounce back from the stress.

If you’re out of work for a longer period of time, your unemployment could take a toll on your child's overall well-being. Studies show parental unemployment may reduce children’s happiness. And researchers have found children’s grades decline when their parents are out of work.

Studies show there are many ways parental unemployment takes a toll on children:

  • Parental stress spills over to children. When parents are stressed about the loss of income or difficulty finding work, children will feel stressed out too.
  • Reduced income affects children’s daily lives. A family’s living standard may decline, which could prevent a child from enjoying the same activities and privileges as before.
  • Job loss triggers other stressful events. When families have to move to a new city or stop sending kids to extra curricular activities, children’s daily lives may be impacted in negative ways.
  • Children worry about the future. Older children who understand a little bit about money and bills may grow anxious that their family will live in poverty or become homeless.
  • Children may become targets for bullies when a parent is unemployed. Unemployment may lead to teasing and bullying from other kids.

When you understand how unemployment affects children, you may be able to reduce the toll it takes on their lives. Talking to kids about job loss and finding ways to help them cope could be instrumental in helping them deal with the stress in a healthy way.

Share Your Plan

Before you sit down with the children, talk to your significant other (if there’s one in the picture) and come up with a plan.

Your children will be much more eased by the fact that you know what the next step is.

So whether you plan to draw unemployment for a bit, look for a new job, return to college, or start a new business, tell your child what you’re thinking might happen next. Even if you don’t ultimately end up following the plan, make sure your child knows you have some ideas in the works.

Have Age-Appropriate Discussions

The age of your child plays a big role in how you approach the topic of job loss—after all, small children won’t understand if you start talking about layoffs, downsizing, or the economy. For the little ones, keep it simple by saying that mommy/daddy will be at home more frequently because her work no longer needs her to come every day.

A child who’s a bit older—say, an elementary school student—can handle a few more details; for example, explain that the company closed or moved to another location.

Teenagers, naturally, will expect the most detail, but their thoughts will likely immediately go to money—so do what you can to reassure them that the family will be OK and that you have a plan to get through the upcoming days, weeks, and months.

Be Honest

Your first instinct might be to sugarcoat the situation so it doesn’t sound so bad, but minimizing the seriousness of the situation too much is a mistake. However, you don’t want to go overboard with the dramatics, so find a good middle ground by being hopefully realistic about what the job loss means for your family.

Here are some examples of what you might say:

  • I’m going to be losing my job next week. Until I find another one, we’ll need to cut back on our spending. That means no eating out and no buying new things unless we really need them.
  • I lost my job today. I’m going to work hard to find another job soon. But I might not be able to find one in the same city. We may need to move.
  • My job wasn’t a good fit for me so I’m not going to be working there anymore. I’m going to be working hard trying to find a new job. But until I get hired somewhere else, we won’t have as much money to spend.

Talk About How Your Job Loss Will Impact Your Child

It’s a child’s nature to first think about what it means for them, so don’t be surprised if the initial reaction is to ask something like, “Does that mean we can’t go on vacation this summer?” or “Will I be able to go to summer camp?”

It’s not necessarily the most pressing question in your mind, but it matters to a child. Don’t jump immediately to soothing his concerns if you don’t know what the plan is. Instead, respond with a realistic, optimistic answer: “Yes, we still plan on vacationing/going to camp. If that changes, we’ll discuss our plan then.”

If you need to cut back on extracurricular activities, explain that—though you might experience some anger or tears, so be prepared. If you plan to cut back on daycare by sending the kids to grandma and grandpa’s house during the day, talk about that too.

Discuss Who They Can Share the Information With

For older kids, make sure they know with whom they can share this information (but don’t make them feel like it’s shameful or that they have to stay tight-lipped forever). If you prefer your child not announce it on social media or not share your job loss with her friends yet, make that clear.

Explain that it’s private, but not secret, and that for now, you’re planning to keep the information a family matter.

Control Your Emotions

Children will take a cue from you on how to react to the news that you’ve lost your job. If you haven’t quite gotten your own emotions in check, wait a day or two to talk to your kids. Immediately before your chat, take steps to calm yourself down. Whether it’s taking a bubble bath or going for a jog, make sure you’re feeling as calm as possible before striking up the conversation.

While it’s OK to admit that you’re feeling a little nervous or uncertain, crying or sounding panicked during a family meeting may cause your children to become overly anxious, and that won’t be helpful to anyone.

Provide Plenty of Reassurance

When you’ve finished talking to your kids about job loss, reassure them that you’ll do your best to stick to their daily routine—and then follow through.

It’s hard for kids to know that their beacon of stability—their parents—are going through an uncertain time. That means keeping the special “out-of-work” events, such as midweek trips to the park, to a minimum.

Even though extra activities are certainly a perk of being at home more with the kids, stick with regular wake-up times, mealtimes, and nap times whenever possible. Sticking to a consistent schedule will help your child feel safe and secure, even in the midst of uncertainty.

What Not to Say

While it’s important to talk to kids about job loss, there are some things you should keep out of your discussions. Here’s what to avoid saying to your child:

  • Avoid placing blame. Even if your job loss stems from an unreasonable boss or a bad economy, don’t let your child think you’re a victim of horrible circumstances and unfair treatment. Dwelling too much on the root causes of the problem will only raise his anxiety about the future.
  • Skip the catastrophic predictions. While you may be thinking you’ll never find another good paying job, don’t clue your child in on your negative predictions. Instead, keep the focus on what you’re actively doing to address your unemployment.
  • Don’t include your child in all conversations. Educating your child about the basics of your situation doesn’t mean you should make him privy to all of your adult conversations. She doesn’t need to know about all the stress you’re experiencing or how worried you are about the mortgage. Hold adult conversations away from your child.

Be Willing to Admit You Don’t Have All the Answers

Whether your child wants to know how long it will take for you to get another job, or whether you can stay in the same line of work, acknowledge uncertainty when you don’t have the answers. Say something like, “I don’t know the answer to that right now, but I’m glad you asked. It’s a good question.”

Sources:

Bernal R. The Effect Of Maternal Employment And Child Care On Childrens Cognitive Development*. International Economic Review. 2008;49(4):1173-1209.

Haisken-Denew JP, Kind M. Unexpected Victims: How Parents Unemployment Affects Their Childrens Life Satisfaction. SSRN Electronic Journal. 2012.

Kalil A, Ziol-Guest KM. Parental employment circumstances and children’s academic progress. Social Science Research. 2008;37(2):500-515.

Marcus J. The Effect of Unemployment on the Mental Health of Spouses – Evidence from Plant Closures in Germany. SSRN Electronic Journal. May 2013.

Powdthavee N, Vernoit J. Parental unemployment and childrens happiness: A longitudinal study of young peoples well-being in unemployed households. Labour Economics. 2013;24:253-263.

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