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Laid Off? How to Tell the Kids
by Kate Shatzkin
Reprinted with permission from

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Reprinted with permission from

Sign of the times: A reader asked for help in telling her kids she'd been laid off. I asked Brad Sachs to respond. He's a psychologist in Columbia who's written books on parenting including The Good Enough Child, The Good Enough Teen, and When No One Understands.

He gives us six ways to approach a layoff with your family...

"No family is completely protected from adversity, and it is important to use these challenging times as opportunities to teach children enduring lessons about resilience, hope and belonging. Due to the economic precipice that we all are now living on, one that we will most likely remain on for some time, many contemporary parents will encounter adversity in the form of a lost job and income, which naturally stirs substantial fear, anxiety, uncertainty and concern regarding the future. How you address and discuss this matter with your children will go a long way towards determining how well they (and you) adjust and adapt to this challenge. Here are some things to keep in mind as you do so:

1) It is best to be straightforward with them, and to avoid pulling any punches. Children need to be able to trust their parents, and trust is rooted in knowing that they will be dealt with honestly. Your candor will also build their self-esteem, because they will recognize that you see them as able to handle difficult matters. “I have some not so great news to share with you, but I think you’re old enough that I can be truthful—you’ve probably heard that the economy is pretty bad right now and times have gotten tough. Well, I found out yesterday that I’m being laid off at work, and this means that I’ll need to look for a new job. Until I find one, we’re all going to have to find some ways to pull together and get through this.”

2) It’s important to be hopeful. I generally try to distinguish hope from optimism, in the sense that optimism is the simple belief that things will get better, while hope is the more important belief that there are things that we can do that are likely to make things get better. With this in mind, you might want to suggest, “I’m not happy about this, of course, but I’ve already begun thinking about some ways that we can cut back until I find a new job, and I’ve already begun talking to people and exploring some new possibilities on the job front that might turn out well.”

3) You want to share with your children your previous experiences with similar adversity, and how you were able to endure and become stronger as a result. If you have had experiences (as we all have) when what felt like a loss or disappointment in the short run actually turned out to be a gain or a triumph in the long run, this would be a good time to share such a story or anecdote. “I remember being fired from my first job and thinking it was the end of the world, but as it turns out, that forced me to get some additional training in my field, which led me to get a much better job down the road. I’m not sure I ever would have gone to the trouble of getting that extra training if I hadn’t gotten the axe in the first place.”

4) Because children often feel futile and helpless in the face of forces that they have no control over, such as the loss of their parent’s job, it is important to give them a sense of what they might do to contribute to the family’s survival. Helping them to feel needed during a difficult time will mobilize them to rise to the occasion and, ultimately, build their sense of self-respect. “Tonight at dinner we’re going to spend some time talking as a family about ways that we can cut back on our spending and save money until I’m back at work. I want you to think about some things, even small things that you might do differently in the coming weeks that will make a difference and help us to get by."

5) During family crises, children need to be able to rely on their friends for support. While you may not be enthusiastic about having your unemployment broadcast among your son or daughter’s peer group, it is important, nonetheless, to let them know that they’re free to discuss this with their closest friends if they’d like to, and that they’re not to feel embarrassed or ashamed. You can remind them that most likely some of their friends’ families are currently, or are going to be, in the midst of a similar ordeal. On the other hand, if they’d prefer to keep it private, you can let them know that that’s perfectly okay, too, and it’ll just be kept within the family.

6) Finally, you want to use this crisis as an opportunity to emphasize what you believe are the most meaningful and profound aspects of being a family, which have less to do with achievement, accomplishment and acquisition, and more to do with compassion, kindness and collaboration. Children need to be reminded that hard times can actually be good times, because we tend to come together and appreciate each other more when we yoke together in the face of misfortune. There’s a difference between having goods and being good—when we educate our children in the vulnerability that we all share as human beings it ultimately provides them with a deep sense of security and connectedness that transcends financial security and enables them to better cope with and grow from the subsequent challenges that will come their way."

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