When trouble hits, your natural instinct is to protect your children by saying as little as possible and pretending everything's fine. This is a mistake because kids pick up on your tension, and without the facts they imagine scenarios far more terrifying than the reality. Job loss, home foreclosure, other financial concerns — these are all family matters. By opening up and letting your children participate in resolving the family's problems, you'll reinforce important values, build their sense of self-worth, and model what it means to pull together. Kids can also learn valuable lessons about managing money. Use these strategies to make the best of bad times.
Give Them the Facts
Pick a time when you can be calm and sit everyone down together to explain what has happened. The younger the kids are, the less detail they need or want. Just give them the basics, starting with a simple statement, such as, "Like lots of people nowadays, I've been laid off from my job." Then provide a few more details and quickly reassure them that you have a plan and that everything will work out: "Don't worry. Your father is still employed. I'm already looking for another job, and we're going to be fine." Keep the meeting brief, and if you start to feel emotional and overwhelmed, take a break and continue the talk another time.
What kids care most about is how they'll be affected. So if you've been laid off, you might say, "The good news is that while I'm looking for another job I'll be around more during the day. But we will have to cut back on some things. We won't be eating out in restaurants as often, and we're going to hold off on a summer vacation. But we'll still have fun by going camping somewhere nearby and having lots more barbecues in the backyard."
Ask for Their Ideas
It's important to involve your children in problem-solving — tweens and teens can be really creative. Urge them to come up with extras they can cut back on or ways to barter their services for those of others. In exchange for their guitar lessons, for example, they can mow the teacher's lawn or help her clean out the garage.
Have everyone brainstorm money-saving ideas like planning less expensive meals, or cutting transportation costs by walking or biking more. Then together choose the ones to put into action.
Encourage your kids to come to you with questions. Instead of waiting for them to ask, though, look for casual moments to explain things. In the grocery store you might point out ways you're cutting back. Also give them quick updates on your progress. If your job search drags on, tell them the process is long, tedious, and slow, but that you know you'll find something.
Help Them with Emotions
Kids also need you to acknowledge that a situation is upsetting. If you're relocating, for instance, say, "I know you hate moving. It's hard on all of us. It's okay to be upset, but I want you to know that sometimes changes like this can actually lead to better things in ways we don't understand yet."
But be careful to protect your kids too. Have your big strategy talks when they're asleep or out of the house. Similarly, don't go to your teen for emotional support. Kids should depend on their parents, not the other way around. By sharing your feelings too often you'll cause them undue stress, since they can't do much. Instead vent your fears and frustrations privately to other grown-ups.
Likewise, resist the temptation to feel sorry for yourself or your kids. It's reassuring for them to see you taking action — sending out resumes and going on job interviews, for example. Stay busy with family, around the house, and with your friends and community. And don't give in to the temptation to cheer kids up with expensive toys, games, or clothes. Help them accept that there will be no new stuff for a while by spending more time with them doing things that are free, like playing sports or watching favorite TV shows.
Keep Them on Track
Kids may slack off on chores and schoolwork as a way to express their anger. But insist that they continue to do their part. They may also try to manipulate you with guilt. Don't play that game. Tell them, "I understand you're frustrated. I am too. But I'm doing all I can to find a new job, and I expect you to do your best as well." Other kids may overcompensate and want to earn money to help out. You don't want a child to feel responsible for supporting the family, but definitely let her pitch in to help cover her own personal expenses. If she doesn't have a job, consider encouraging her to get one.
Finally, remember that your emotions will affect your kids. It may be difficult, but try to stay upbeat because that will keep everyone happier. You might want to create a family gratitude list — once a week you each write down something you're thankful for.
Another way to keep the whole family feeling strong is to involve everyone in giving. It doesn't have to be a big commitment, just something like donating unwanted items to a charity thrift shop or participating in a local fund-raising walk. Thinking of others who are struggling can help kids stop worrying about themselves and reassure them that no one's situation is ever hopeless — there are always people willing to help.
Focus on the Big Picture
Parents may not want to tell tweens and teens what's going on because they're afraid their children will be disappointed in them. But kids are much more resilient than we give them credit for. When they see you handle problems, deal with crises, and make difficult decisions, their respect for you grows. Just as important, they learn that, like you, they too can handle life's challenges.
Originally published in the June 2009 issue of Family Circle magazine.