If you’re among the tens of millions of Americans who became unemployed during the pandemic, you have likely been dealing with more stress than just lockdowns, remote learning and social distancing have brought (and that was enough to begin with). It can be tricky to know whether—or how—to approach the topic of job loss with your kids; you don’t want to burden them or add more worry to an already difficult year.
But chances are, they already know something is wrong. And there are ways you can talk to them about it that is honest and candid without being alarming.
Don’t try to hide it
Unless they’re very young, if you previously worked out of the home and you’re no longer leaving for work at 8 a.m. sharp every morning, they’re going to notice that something is up. And even if you worked from home, you’re likely not spending eight straight hours in front of the computer anymore, and they’re going to notice that, too.
But even if you’ve managed to lie away the changes in your schedule, kids are very adept at picking up on the emotional temperature of the room—that is, if you’re stressed out, there’s a good chance they already know you’re stressed out. And if they don’t know why you’re stressed, kids also have a tendency to invent their own scenarios; and in lieu of another explanation, they often assume that they are the underlying cause.
You don’t want to lay your adult burden on their little shoulders but you do want to acknowledge that you’re although you’re going through a difficult time, you have a plan and the family will be okay.
Talk to them with “hopeful realism”
If you have a partner, sit down with them first to discuss how you’ll talk to the kids about your job loss; you’ll need to be on the same page. Also choose a time to talk to the kids when you are feeling calm—not immediately after you receive the news or before you’ve really processed what happened.
They will largely take their cue on how to react by your demeanor, so try to talk to them in a way that is “hopefully realistic,” as psychotherapist Amy Morin writes for Very Well Family:
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.
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.
Your tone really is the most important thing here; the actual words you use will depend on your family’s financial situation and your child’s age. If your family is financially secure and you can weather several weeks or months without your income, tell them that. If this means things are tight and some extras they’re used to, like the weekly pizza delivery, need to be paused while you look for a new job, you can tell them that, too. And make sure to point out all the supportive people in your lives, such as their grandparents or other loved ones, who will help, if needed.
Younger, elementary-age kids probably won’t need too many details. You can tell them the reason for the job loss, but keep it simple—the company shut down or they don’t need as many employees now as they did before because they’re not as busy. And they’ll probably want to know how it will directly impact them (will they still be able to attend summer camp?).
Tweens and teens may want to dig a little deeper and better understand the family’s financial picture. Talk about your plans going forward, whether it’s looking for a new job, doing some freelance work or side jobs, or going back to school for a career change. You can’t know that everything will happen according to plan, but it will be comforting for them to know that you’ve got some next steps in the works.
You may also want to talk about how private you want the family to be about the job loss, particularly with kids who are on social media. Just be careful not to imply that there is any shame in your situation; this isn’t a secret, but it may be something you prefer to keep private within the family or within your immediate social circle, and that’s okay.
Allow room for their reactions
Depending on your child’s age or temperament, they may display any number of emotional reactions to your news: indifference, anger, sadness, confusion. And don’t be surprised if their main reaction is about how the job loss may directly affect their lifestyle. As clinical psychologist Wendy Mogel writes for the New York Times, it’s helpful for parents to remember that heartbreak can often sound like entitlement:
You’re likely to hear some version of:
“THIS ISN’T HAPPENING! … No way! Not fair! You promised! … Where am I supposed to go all summer? … WHAT do I tell my friends?”
As challenging as it may be, try to respect your children’s disappointment without defensiveness. Of course the pandemic wasn’t your fault, but your children may lash out at you. Take it as a good sign. It means that they heard you and trust that you are sturdy enough to be able to absorb their feelings.
Give them space to ask questions and answer them as calmly and candidly as you can. And remember that they need time to process this, just like you did. This shouldn’t be a one-time conversation; like all big parenting talks, this is something that you can—and should—discuss from time to time as you check in with how they’re feeling or update them with any new developments.
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