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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

Surviving Unemployment When You've Got Kids, According to Someone Who Did

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When my husband and I were laid off within six weeks of each other, we quickly found out how hard it could be to put on a brave face. Though we tried to keep our panic to a minimum, children are sponges and they really do pick up everything.

They’re naturally curious. Ours, who were 11, eight, and six at the time, wanted to know why we were both home all the time, how quickly we would find new jobs, if we would have to sell our home and move, if we could still take a summer vacation, and most concerning, what would happen if Mom and Dad didn’t find new jobs?

Unemployment’s stressful under any circumstances, but when you’re a parent, it becomes even more challenging for all the obvious reasons.

It was a trying time for us, one filled with far more questions than answers, one that led me to seek out an expert whose advice could help parents navigate this tricky terrain. I spoke with Gail F. Melson, PhD, Professor Emerita, Department of Human Development and Family Studies at Perdue University.

The following are her tips for getting through this period with your family (and sanity) intact.

Provide Stability and Reassurance

Dr. Melson notes that in order for young children to flourish, they need both stability and reassurance.

While it’s easier said than done, she recommends trying to keep job-related worries or concerns to yourself. While toddlers and even pre-teens might not understand the nuances of being out of work, they pick up on the emotions involved.

“Young children, those under seven in particular, want reassurance that the world is safe and that their parents will protect them. If all is well in the family, all is well in the world,” Dr. Melson notes.

While it was often hard to hide our disappointment when those post-interview rejection emails rolled in, we knew that causing the kids further alarm would only make us feel worse. So, as often as possible, my husband and I tried to wait until after our children were in bed to have more serious conversations.

Work as a Team

On the flipside of the above advice, if you have older children, it’s a good idea to sit them down and discuss your new financial situation, Dr. Melson suggests.

In cases of unemployment as well as situations in which hours are cut back, overtime is eliminated, or a salaried employee becomes a contractor and loses benefits, presenting that information to teens in a way that they can understand helps them process the changes that may be ahead.

“You can say, ‘Here’s our budget and now we have less to work with,” Dr. Melson says. “‘Let’s sit down together and have a family meeting about finances.’ A lot of parents feel like ‘budget’ is a dirty word. It used to be sex, but now money is a taboo subject for many families.”

Demystifying money’s a good lesson for children, especially if you’re doing it in a way that doesn’t create anxiety, she adds.

“It’s not helpful to say ‘I can’t pay this bill,’ but it is helpful to say, ‘This is the rent, this is how much the electric company charges when we flip on the lights. We don’t have too much leftover. So, when we say we can’t get those new sneakers, you understand why. This is why,’” she explains.

Though no child wants to hear “No, we’re not buying that,” our boys took it better when they understood the reason behind it.

Don’t Underestimate Your Kids

While it’s a parental instinct to want to shield our kids from some of life’s harsher realities, Dr. Melson says parents shouldn’t underestimate their desire and ability to help.

“Depending on the age, they may be able to mow lawns or shovel snow, and that makes them feel as if they’re contributing, as if they’re part of a solution,” she says.

We witnessed this first-hand when our middle son, who adores animals, started his own neighborhood dog-walking business. Receiving $10 here and there gave him confidence, and when he’d stop for pizza on his walk home from school, he’d proudly say, “Don’t worry, Mom, I can pay for it.”

Rather Than Focus on Fear, Address It

Children want to know that should your situation not improve immediately—or should you become unemployed again—you, as the parent, have a strategy in place, Dr. Melson notes.

“Rather than focus on fear, you can say, ‘OK, it’s possible it could happen again. It’s not out of the question,’” she says. “You can ask them, ‘What do you think would happen exactly?’”

Then, while you’re having that open discussion, get specific about how you’d deal with those circumstances should they occur again. Sometimes letting children know Mom and Dad have prepared a back-up plan can provide the peace of mind kids crave.

My husband and I have found new jobs, but the thought that we could become unemployed again is never far from our minds. While we can’t predict the future, we can prepare for it by saving, keeping our resumes and portfolios updated, and assuring our children that should it happen, we’re ready.

Remaining calm in a crisis is a great example to set for kids of any age. Though losing a job or facing a financial strain due to a work-related change can be anxiety-producing for all family members, keeping these strategies in mind can alleviate some of the pressure.