Experiencing a job loss can negatively affect people’s mental health and be the catalyst for lingering feelings of self-doubt and low self-confidence, even in subsequent jobs. Beyond the initial emotional impact of a layoff comes the pressure to plan both financially and personally—and for caregivers, that means managing what your job loss means for your family.
What’s often lost in the unemployment shuffle of to-dos is how to explain it all to your children. How much should you divulge?
Recent research shows financial changes in the family were a large disruptor in kids’ lives during the pandemic—notably affecting their mental health. Therefore, to the extent that makes sense for your personal experience, being honest can help them understand how their life may be impacted without feeling like they need to take on the burden.
It’s a tricky dance, but it’s possible, Amanda Morin, the vice president of learning and knowledge at The Jed Foundation, a mental health non-profit aiding youth, tells Fortune.
“Being able to be calm, and sort of as collected as you can yourself before you start having that conversation is really important,” she says, who has expertise in child development, psychology, and parent intervention. “There’s a way to have a conversation that’s authentic, and genuine and honest, without being panicked at the same time.”
Here are some things to consider when talking to your children about your unemployment:
Children are more perceptive than you think
Even if a parent withholds information about their unemployment, or sudden job loss, a child may notice a change whether it’s with their routine or a parent’s demeanor.
“Kids are so used to their routines, that when the routine changes, they can perceive a difference in something,” says Morin. “They will wonder because kids are really tuned into their parents.”
Children, therefore, may worry about what they don’t know, Morin says, or assume something is going on.
Pause before telling everyone
Pausing before launching into your story will help you manage emotional distress before including your children.
“Sometimes we want to immediately fix the problem or try to find a way to not feel bad, but taking time to grieve and truly feel the loss is important,” Dr. Sheehan Fisher, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, previously told Fortune. “It’s almost like a death where you need to let yourself grieve even though grieving is very painful.”
Know your goal
Before sitting your children down and discussing the change that occurred in your life, contemplate your intended goal and outcome. Depending on your preference, the type of job loss situation, and the age of your children, goals about how to manage your unemployment with your family will differ.
For parents of younger children, the goal may be to explain how your routine will change if you’re home more often, Morin says.
Consider saying something like, “I’m going to be home for a while because my job has changed…and I’m going to be looking for a new one and making sure that we can do what we need to do to keep you safe and secure.”
For parents with teenage children, or who want to share with them the reason behind their stress levels, consider sharing why your mood has shifted.
Consider saying something like, “I’m going to be looking for a new place to get up and go to work, and you may see that I’m a little anxious or unhappy about that, but that doesn’t have anything to do with you,” Morin says.
You can add, “It has to do with my feelings about what’s happening, and I’m going to do everything to make sure that things stay as much the same as possible.”
It’s ok to say ‘I don’t know’
When fielding questions from children about how things may change, Morin reminds parents to not avoid saying “I don’t know.”
“Being as honest as you can about what you don’t know is better than over-promising,” she says.
As an alternative to dodging a question, consider giving specific examples about how your unemployment will impact them, such as how you will cut back on expenses or need to work at different hours to prepare for interviews.
Reminding them that you are doing your best can give them a sense of ease about the situation, Morin adds.
Consider saying something like, “That’s my responsibility to figure out. I’m doing the best I can to make sure that we do pay our bills.”
Feelings of embarrassment and shame can come up with a job loss even if someone was a product of a mass layoff, Morin says. Modeling appropriate emotions can help children.
“If you don’t say out loud, ‘I’m upset, I’m worried’ then kids may feel bad about having those feelings themselves,” Morin says.
The difference between privacy and secrecy
Parents should also think about who they want the information about their unemployment to be shared among. It’s ok to tell children that it is a more private matter, without expecting them to keep a secret among people they trust themselves.
Use your experience to discuss disappointment
Failure will be a part of every child’s life, but often, parents want to protect their children from feelings of disappointment. Morin says going through disappointment yourself is a great chance to model what that looks like for your children.
Consider saying, “You know when you try really hard at something, and it doesn’t go the way you expected? That’s the way I feel right now.”
“I think the difference between embarrassment and shame is to be able to say, ‘I feel disappointed about this. I don’t feel good about this,’” Morin says. “But what you’re not saying to your child is, ‘and this is my fault,’ and ‘I did something wrong.’”
It may be hard to model this strength in the midst of your own emotions—and frankly, maybe you don’t actually feel what you are preaching—which is where another support becomes paramount.
Seek your own emotional help
The pressure on parents to simultaneously model strength amid a personal stressor while showcasing vulnerability is difficult. It’s important that parents have outlets where they can let out their emotions and frustrations more freely.
“It’s really important for parents to find their own emotional support system of adults that they can turn to, because their kids are going to need support, but they also need support,” Morin says.