Family life

How do you explain unemployment to children?

Experts believe parents should talk to their children about personal setbacks, but Jennifer is struggling to find the right words.

By Jennifer Pinarski
How do you explain unemployment to children?

Photo: Ivanjekic/iStockphoto

In the weeks before my husband lost his job, our six-year-old home computer started showing its age. When we shut it down at the end of the day, it makes an obnoxious beeping sound and the error message “FAILURE” appears on the screen. Recently, our son, who now insists on reading every word he sees, sounded the word out painfully slow and our daughter mimicked the beeping sound.

Under normal circumstances, we’d laugh it off and go to the nearest electronics store to buy a new laptop. Instead, I backed up all of our documents and my husband slammed the screen shut, muttering under his breath about not needing a reminder.

We haven't come right out and told our children that their father was laid off from his job. I’ve said things like “Daddy is taking a break from work” and, instead of asking questions why, they just enjoy the extra time with him. They haven’t complained about not going out for dinner or having new toys. To them, nothing has changed. Our kids are sensitive and intelligent and I don’t believe in shielding them from death or other bad news. So why is talking to them about personal setbacks so difficult — and is telling them even the right decision?

“Many parents might avoid telling kids out of shame or embarrassment," says psychologist Dr. Peggy Drexler in her recent Huffington Post article. In our case, I feel this hits the nail on the head. Kids famously brag about what their parents do for a living. In fact, not so long ago our son and one of his pals were comparing the jobs their fathers had and Isaac was fiercely proud of his dad. Even as a stay-at-home mom, my son happily tells his friends that I stay home to cook, clean and play with his little sister, and hearing him say that fills me with joy.

But how much information do school-age children really need? Like I said, we’re not the sort of parents to hide difficult topics from our children. For example, I talk openly about mental health and depression with them — but somehow talking about job loss has me at a loss for words. But Dr. Drexler points out that children are good at reading between the lines and picking up on tension in a household. “They might not know what's happening, exactly, but they know something's happening — and the uncertainty can be as scary and anxiety-provoking as the truth,” she says.

Thinking back on my own childhood I can now understand Dr. Drexler’s reasoning. As my parents worked through their divorce, my siblings and I never really knew what was happening until the day we were asked to pack our favourite toys into the family station wagon because we had to move. After that, we only saw our dad once every few weeks and our mom seemed to always be looking for the right words to explain the situation. Now as an adult, I finally understand.

But therein lies the problem of adults trying to explain adult problems to children. It took me a years to grasp the concept and fallout of my parents' divorce. I know, comparing divorce and unemployment is like comparing apples to oranges, but both are enormous issues that many adults have a hard time coming to terms with.

So while right now we don’t have the words to easily explain unemployment and financial stress to our children, we will do what we do best as parents — make our children feel loved. Then we'll cross our fingers and hope for the best.

This article was originally published on May 15, 2013

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