Deciding how to tell your kid that you lost your job can be one more big worry on top of the many stresses you can experience when you learn you’re no longer employed.
Set aside time to process any of your anger, shock or disappointment, but then start planning right away about how you are going to share the news with your younger family members. You don’t want to wait too long. Children are likely to notice that something is up.
“When parents are upset about stressful things, like being laid off, it is impossible to hide this from their children, because they will see the emotional response,” said Rosanna Breaux, an assistant psychology professor at Virginia Tech and the director of the Child Study Center, a research and training facility focused on understanding the problems of childhood and adolescence. “Kids are sponges and they pick up on both non-verbal and verbal messages that we give them.“
Child experts shared tips about what not to do when breaking the news to kids — and gave advice on how to approach the conversation instead.
Don’t pretend nothing has happened or wait too long to have the conversation.
The danger with trying to hide your layoff news is that kids may blame themselves for any change in your behavior, said Wendy Mogel, a clinical psychologist and author of “Voice Lessons for Parents: What To Say, How To Say It, and When To Listen.”
“Kids are extremely egocentric and they think it’s all about them,” she said. “You are crabby, you are weepy, you are distant, you are frantically on the computer, you are overeating or under-eating, or over-exercising or under-exercising ― whatever it is that differs from the previous footprint of your day, kids just think it’s about them.”
This is not a conversation you can put off for too long, because your kids will definitely notice something has changed — or they will find out from someone else.
Angie Ahn, a tech professional who was recently part of a mass layoff, waited a few days to tell her 12-year-old son and then the question came up from an adult at her son’s soccer practice, who had heard about her company’s layoffs. “I wish I had said something to him before it came out in this unexpected conversation with somebody else. He basically overheard it and said, ‘What happened?’ That I wished I had done differently,” Ahn said.
But if you do wait too long, know that you can still recover. “We ended up sitting in the car, just the two of us talking about this. I let him ask questions and I think it went well,” she said. “We kind of focused on, ‘I’m going to have more time for you now. ... It’s OK, I’m going to find another job and it will be fine, but in the meantime we get to enjoy some time together.’ And that’s really all kids want. They want your time, they want your attention.”
Don’t share your worst-case scenarios like losing the house.
“The critical issue is not to overshare,” said Keith Crnic, an Arizona State University psychology professor who researches parent-child interactions. He said dire-sounding language like “Oh, my God, we’re in a lot of trouble” or “We really need to be careful, everybody’s got to tighten it up” can upset children.
Children may already be jumping to these worst-case scenarios, such as thinking your family will become unhoused, “so talking about these possible negative outcomes could just add to their anxiety,” Breaux added.
Crnic said kids need to feel secure in their lives, even when you, the adult, may not feel the same way, so you ideally want to model good coping skills in your language instead. “What you present to kids is that you are facing a challenge, but that challenge is something that can be overcome. You show problem-solving around it,” he said.
Don’t lie and pretend everything is going to stay the same, though, if you foresee upcoming plans changing. Instead, frame potential changes in routines and future vacations as “part of our problem-solving strategy,” Crnic said.
“Being honest about that is a good thing,” he added.
Don’t vent or bad-mouth your employer while sharing the news.
“A child is not a little adult,” said Dr. Zoraya Ahumada, a Houston-based child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist. “Filtering information is extremely important.”
Understand that no matter how mature your child seems, they are not your peer, and you should not talk to them about your layoff like they are one.
“A lot of parents ... they adopt one of the children as their best friend, and that’s what leads to the oversharing,” Mogel said, noting that this often happens with preteen and teenage daughters. “The children will act very confident and comfortable to get you to tell them more stuff, and then they ruminate and they have bad dreams and they become anxious and inhibited.”
Make sure you’re in a headspace where you do not project your fears about what the job loss may mean onto your child.
“It’s fine to be nervous and share this with your child, but you want to make sure you aren’t crying or coming off as overly anxious or angry when talking with your child about the layoff,” Breaux said.
To that end, be careful with the language you use to describe what happened.
“You might not want to say ‘I was fired,’ as this may lead to more questions as to what you did wrong that you might not be prepared to answer in a non-emotional manner,” Breaux added. “Don’t express anger about the unfairness of the situation. This is more appropriate to discuss with your partner or friend.”
Once you’re ready, Mogel said, you can kick off the conversation simply with language like, “Well, we’ve got some news in our family.”
Don’t forbid your child from telling people they trust.
In general, Mogel said she does not like for kids to be asked to keep a lot of secrets, because it sends the message that the secret is something to be ashamed of.
Giving children more leeway to talk about your layoff to people they trust is generous to the child’s well-being, Mogel said.
“Give them as much rein as possible about telling their best friend or telling their teacher,” she said. “Sometimes I want the parent to tell the teacher, because the teacher is going to be wondering why that previously exuberant, wise child who contributed so much in class is sitting there practically in tears or withdrawn.”
Don’t invalidate feelings your child may express in response.
Kids may react to your job loss by making the news all about them, but that’s part of what being a kid is.
“‘But I’m still going to be able to have my birthday, right? Oh, we’re still going to Paris?’” Mogel said. “It can seem wildly selfish, and insensitive and not compassionate — they’re kids. They don’t know how to step into your shoes and we don’t want them to, because then they are prematurely adult.”
“What we’re trying to do all the time is expand their vocabulary of feelings,” Mogel said. That’s why it’s important to acknowledge any disappointment over changed plans without feeling sorry for them or ashamed, she said, and “to be respectful of [their] longing and yearning and [their] desire, and to come up with creative alternatives.”
What you should do or say instead.
You cannot necessarily know how your child will react to your job loss news, but there are ways you can position yourself for success. To have this sensitive conversation go well, follow these additional expert tips:
Choose a time to tell them when you can give them your full attention.
If you can, try doing it intentionally while you are on a walk together in nature instead of making it a half-distracted conversation, Mogel said, because “we are primates, we do well with movement.”
Listen with calm curiosity to what they may want to ask you, Mogel said. You can prompt conversation with a question like “What do you imagine could happen?” to see what they are worrying about and to correct their misperceptions, Mogel added.
Try to relate the news to their lived experience.
Try using transitions they understand like when their teacher changes, or their friends move, or when they lose a sports game, Ahumada said. “Those transitions do happen in life,” she said, noting that it is important for children to understand these can be natural processes.
Tailor the conversation to the child’s age and emotional maturity.
“For young children, focus on any changes that will directly affect them, such as you being home more often or them not being able to go to summer camp. For school-aged children, focus on the fact that this is a temporary, unexpected change that makes you sad or may mean you need to spend extra time looking for a job,” Breaux said. “For teens, you may have to validate their emotional reaction to the situation and directly address concerns they may have regarding finances.”
Mogel said you can talk about the job transition starting with 4- and 5-year-olds because they understand a little about what a job is. And for children under 4 or 5, where cognitive development is not there yet, it is still important “to pay attention to the continuity of the kind of attention you pay to them and just the rhythm and color of their day, to do as much as you can to make that unchanged.”
Frame it as something you will get through together.
“Use the layoff as an opportunity to have family discussions as to how to try new things. For example, making meals together as a family that are less expensive than eating out,” Breaux said. “This can be a learning opportunity to teach resilience.”
See this as a series of mini-conversations.
Parents make the mistake of wanting to “get it over with in a big download,” Mogel said. But “children, no matter what age, cannot process a lot of information at once.”
Ahn said the first conversation with your child can set the tone, but “it’s not just what you say on that one day ... the reinforcement through your actions after that also make a huge difference.”
This transition can be a lot of information for parents to process, too. That’s why it’s important for parents to remember to take care of themselves, so they can be a better caregiver to their children. Lean on your support network and try mastering an activity you have always been meaning to try.
“Embracing the opportunity for personal growth says a lot to the kids,” Ahn advised. Her son plays music and, since her layoff, Ahn said she has started a music program. “It’s given us another opportunity to do something together,” she said.