Layoffs, we must remember, are a family affair. And facing the painful reality of job loss as a family is necessary. This doesn’t mean your four-year-old needs to know the details of your household budget, or that your pre-teen needs to worry about transferring to a new (unknown) school. But it does mean approaching conversations, and any problems you have, in a clear and age-appropriate manner. In this piece, the author offers advice on what to say (and not to say) when you break the news to your children as well as practical strategies to help your family weather the job loss together.
We all know that layoffs are hard. They create stress, worry, and financial instability, not to mention grief over a job that you loved, or colleagues you miss. Unfortunately, layoffs are fairly common. In the U.S., approximately 40 percent of Americans have been laid off at least once in their career. You don’t even have to be laid off to feel anxious about it; simply knowing that you could be next, or saying goodbye to colleagues can spark layoff anxiety.
If this is you, you’re probably worried about a lot of things: your mortgage or rent, grocery bills, and a job hunt, among other things. And the stress only compounds when we realize this impacts not just our own life but also each member of our family. The stakes are particularly high when it comes to your kids. How will your layoff impact them? You might suddenly be worried about paying for soccer registration—and perhaps the orthodontist bill, too.
Layoffs, we must remember, are a family affair. And facing the painful reality of job loss as a family is necessary. This doesn’t mean your four-year-old needs to know the details of your household budget, or that your pre-teen needs to worry about transferring to a new (unknown) school. But it does mean approaching conversations, and any problems you have, in a clear and age-appropriate manner. Here are seven things you can do to help your family weather a job loss together.
Prepare for the Conversation
You’ll need to tell your family that you’ve lost your job, and probably pretty quickly. Your emotions are likely raw, and you probably will still feel very worried about what’s taking place. This is an exceedingly difficult time to talk about what’s happened because the conversation can quickly veer in a direction you weren’t intending. This is especially true when kids throw curveball statements you don’t expect or ask a question you can’t answer.
The best thing to do is to decide ahead of time what your goal of the conversation is, what you are willing to share, and also what would be better left unsaid. (You and your partner might game this out together.) For example, while you might have real concerns about making your mortgage payments, there is no reason to bring up the possibility of having to sell the house if that is not a present reality. Think about what would be beneficial to tell the family without causing them unnecessary stress.
A conversation with a four-year-old will obviously be very different than one with a teenager. With younger kids, terminology matters a lot. Try to speak in terms they understand — something like “Mom won’t be going into the office for a little while.” And try to avoid certain phrases. Ellen Galinsky, president and founder of the Families and Work Institute in New York, warns that children might hear “I got fired” and think of guns. She also points out that “laid off” doesn’t hold any meaning for most little kids.
Older kids, however, have a more nuanced understanding of the implications of job loss. And don’t be surprised if they have a lot of follow-up questions about how they will be impacted. At the same time, realize it might take a while for their questions to come out. Reassure them their questions are welcome at any time.
Your instinct might be to conceal what you’re feeling in an effort to protect the kids, but it’s actually healthy for them to talk about real emotions. As clinical psychologist Dr. Julie Futrell explains, they know if what you’re telling them doesn’t match the emotions they are sensing.
When parents model honest emotions, kids have an opportunity to see mom and dad as human and to witness resiliency and healthy coping mechanisms. You should share what you’re feeling, why, and how you are managing those feelings. So you might say, “Daddy feels really sad today. And it’s ok to feel sad. But I’m going to be alright and will do what it takes to get back to feeling happy.”
Just a quick word of caution: Do not look to children for emotional support. That’s not their role. Maintain a strict boundary and instead surround yourself with trusted adults who can provide emotional support.
Develop a Family Mantra
A layoff can be a teachable moment. Think together about what defines you and how you face hard times. Make that a positive affirmation about who you are as a family. For example, “We are Colemans and we can do hard things together.”
Studies show that these positive affirmations change neural pathways and light up the reward center of the brain. This also gives your kids a sense of stability and teamwork. You’re in it together. You’ll figure it out.
Children thrive with a stable family routine. While modifications might be necessary, keeping the week as “normal” as possible increases the sense of safety and security.
Make Necessary Changes as a Family
While consistency is a goal, some lifestyle changes will likely be necessary. Take the opportunity to involve the kids in brainstorming and developing budget suggestions. Appropriate topics might be thinking through the grocery budget, Christmas spending, weekend activities, or a clothing allowance. This is a chance for everyone to think outside of the box. What fun meals could you create together on a budget? Develop a list of unique activities that are wallet-friendly. A quick internet search pulls up countless creative ideas. Engaging everyone gives the whole family a sense of control while also teaching kids financial skills they will use in the future.
Research shows that service to others can help the participants to see beyond their own situations and pain, so finding ways to volunteer together can be hugely beneficial. (And also, it’s free!) When done as a family, the experience offers quality time together, creates memories, and teaches children valuable lessons about altruism and compassion. It has also been shown to make people happier.
Teaching Resilience for the Long Haul
Remember, layoffs are common. This may be your first time handling one, or maybe you’ve been here before. Think back on your own childhood: Do you remember one of your parents being laid off? If you do, you probably remember how your family handled it. Now consider your own children: How will they remember this experience? While no one expects to look back on a layoff fondly, this season doesn’t have to sink an individual or devastate a family. But in fact, the experience can be used to bind your family closer together and teach valuable lessons.
It’s an opportunity to model grit, resilience, positivity, and perseverance. Having to model these traits might even make you feel them yourself, and that can even help you land your next job.