"My daddy got fired."
I flinched a little when I heard those words blurted out by my then-five year old daughter to a random barista at a coffee shop. Ouch! We had talked about job loss, job search and unemployment privately, but this was a rare public airing of my predicament by my sweet little girl. Recovering quickly I chuckled, shoved a hot chocolate into her hands and ushered her off to a table.
Once we were sipping our drinks I waited a few minutes and then asked her how she felt about me not working. She said it made her sad for me and she didn't understand why anyone wouldn't want me around. Expressing both a little distress and fear, she wondered if we would have to move or be poor. I was impressed with both the depth and sophistication of her feelings, but was also concerned that she might be taking on more than her few years could handle.
How do we talk to children about job loss? While we are grappling with our own feelings of financial insecurity, emotional turmoil and the professional challenge of being unemployed, we also have to guide our kids through their worries and fears. What do we reveal? How honest should we be? Yeah, this may require some expert advice.
How do you break the news to your kids?
Dr. Daphne Anshel, a clinical psychologist in Hoboken, N.J., says to be very mindful of "sharing big emotion at a time of high emotion." Wait until you are in a positive space. You need to be honest, but not in a scary way. Less is more when telling the children and listening to them is just as important. Watch how they are digesting the information and make sure to answer their questions.
Dr. Melanie Greenberg, a Marin County, Calif-based clinical psychologist and writer of the Mindful Self-Express blog for Psychology Today, stresses that you need to protect the children. They "take their cues from the parent and how the parent is presenting it." Let them see the upside in it and assure them family life will go on.
She also adds that you should see what questions they ask or if they seem to be distressed or depressed. Make sure to answer questions at their level and to accentuate the positive.
How do you allay their fears of family turmoil and financial insecurity?
"Don't show panic to them beyond their age to understand," says Dr. Greenberg. "It's not their job to take care of the parents. The adults are in charge and have the skills and competence." Don't show too much anxiety. Let them know there will be a solution.
Dr. Anshel stresses "positive psychology" that will optimize the experience. What benefits can we reap? What are the opportunities to model positive, constructive behavior? This is a terrific time to show how adults deal with negative emotions and life challenges. There is also the chance to give lessons in budgeting.
How do you prevent them from taking on your shame, depression or fears?
Use "coping thoughts" or positive self talk "that will help you cope with a situation" and share those thoughts and the process with the children, Dr. Anshel recommends. While we need to acknowledge negative emotion, talk about how we handle it. Show how mom or dad goes about looking for a new job and embraces the possibility of change and growth.
Dr. Greenberg suggests spending more time with the family and reinforcing that "We have each other. We have love." By talking, playing and sharing more you can meet many of their emotional needs.
Should you seek professional help for your child?
Dr. Anshel, former Clinical Supervisor at the NYU Child Study Center's School-Based Intervention Program, says if you see an increase in your child's anxiety or a major change that doesn't go away and is being reported by multiple sources, you need to take it seriously. Seek out a school guidance counselor, your pediatrician or call a child therapist for a one-time conversation. They should be able to determine with you what are the best next steps.
In the end this is a great opportunity to spend time with your kids, probably more time than you would have while working. Make sure to maximize family time and find inexpensive ways to laugh and grow together. You can't avoid the stress of unemployment or the financial pain, but you can spin it into a positive growth experience for you AND your kids.
Here are some online resources to help you lead your children through this challenging process.
NYU Child Study Center
Child Mind Institute
The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley