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How do I tell my kids?

By Linda Matchan
Globe Staff / March 24, 2009

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Parenting is challenging enough, but when things go wrong, most parents can draw on experience -- if not their own then that of a family member, friend, or expert. But not many of us have lived through an economic downturn of these proportions, and most haven't got a clue how to answer our kids' hard questions. Here's a blueprint for how to approach some of the ones that therapists are facing now.

My company announced layoffs and I'm sure I'm on the list. I'm already behind on the mortgage and car payments. I'm not sleeping at night. How do I pretend to my kids that everything's OK?

You can't pretend. "Kids are very good at picking up when there's been a change of some kind," said Larry Abrams, a psychologist with the Brookline Community Mental Health Center.

So be honest that you're worried, said Jamie Woolf, author of "Mom-In-Chief: How Wisdom From the Workplace Can Save Your Family From Chaos." "But also share that things will be OK even if you don't believe it yourself." On the other hand, don't over-promise. If your kids ask you point-blank if you're going to lose your job, she recommends telling them "I don't know yet," and offering reasonable reassurances.

For kids, one of the hardest aspects of these unpredictable economic times is feeling helpless. Denise Daniels, a grief therapist in Minneapolis who works with children, is a big believer in giving children opportunities to feel they can have some control over the situation. Her online children's journal, aimed at kids 6-11, recommends that children write a letter to President Obama to tell them how they're feeling about what's happening to their family (they don't have to send it); and offers suggestions for kids to help the family save money, such as collecting coupons, packing their school lunch instead of buying it, and borrowing movies and books from the library instead of paying for them.

"Give them a money-saving task that is their responsibility," Woolf suggested. "Like turning off lights in unoccupied rooms or gathering old toys and making posters for a family yard sale."

"One of the biggest mistakes parents make is totally denying or ignoring it when they know something is going on," said Robert Brooks, Harvard Medical School psychologist and co-author of "Raising Resilient Children." "Tell them it's a difficult time, a lot of people are having a difficult time, and we're trying to figure out the best way to handle this."

My 10-year-old daughter asked if we're going to have to move out of our house like her cousin did. Frankly, the answer is yes. What do I tell her?

If it hasn't happened yet, "I wouldn't bring it up until it's definite," said Brooks. "Things can change." But if the move is inevitable, "it's time to break the news as honestly as possible," advised Woolf. "Say that no matter where you move, your family will always have a home together." Woolf often reminds parents that good parenting doesn't mean shielding your child from hardship, but instead "managing the hard emotions - the sadness, confusion or fear - that comes from challenges."

To Daniels, "this is a teachable moment of epic proportions. Tell them that a lot of people are losing their jobs right now, and the important thing to remember is 'Tommy is going to be OK, his mommy and daddy love him and are doing their best to take care of him.' "

Think about it as imparting important life lessons, she said. You're teaching them you're a family and you stay together.

Tough as it is, try to stress the positives in the situation, said Abrams. "Without being Pollyannaish, you can say that daddy lost his job and we can't pay for our home at this point and we are going to move in with cousin Johnny. Tell them some parts will be hard, and some parts will be fun, but daddy will get another job eventually."

Bottom line: Make sure to reassure kids they will be safe. "Kids are frightened about abandonment," said Dr. Henry White, clinical director of the Brookline Community Mental Health Center. "Reassure them important things aren't going to change."

There are times when there isn't enough food in the house and I don't have the heart to tell my kids that I'm using food stamps. What should I do?

Put a spin on it. "Tell them there is this excellent resource available to us and I believe in using the resources we have at hand," said Carol Kauffman, clinical staff associate at McLean Hospital.

"You're putting it in a positive way," said Brooks. "It's really wonderful that one of the ways there are for people to get help is by using food stamps. Hopefully soon we won't need them."

Again, and above all, find the teachable moment in this predicament." It's an opportunity for families to bond and develop a closeness they never had before," Daniels said. "You're teaching kids family values. You're teaching them delayed gratification skills. In a society where our pride often comes through our jobs and compensation, you can teach kids to focus on what's on the inside. These skills will be with them forever."

My husband lost his job and has taken a temporary contract job halfway across the country to make ends meet. My kids are 2 and 5 and don't understand why daddy has gone away. They're quite sad, and I'm worried about them. What can I do?

Remember, kids are egocentric: "They want to know who's going to be there to take care of me," said Daniels, who is also the author of "What Can I Do?" an online journal for kids 6-11 whose parents are struggling in the economic downturn. (www.scholastic.com/whatcanido)

Tell them no matter what happens, your family will still stick this out together. Say their routine will stay the same. And make sure they talk to their dad as often as possible, or if possible, have them talk with him via Skype.

Don't sugarcoat it, added Kauffman. "Explain 'daddy has to do this really annoying thing, and we'll do the best we can.' "

Young as your kids are, they need to hear two things from you, in ways suited to their age level, according to Woolf. First, it's normal to feel confused and sad; reassure them that you're always nearby to help them. And two, let them know the situation is temporary. "Be careful about being overly reassuring," she said. "If you say, 'mommy won't lose her job,' you put your credibility on the line."

"The most frightening thing for kids is the feeling of not knowing what's going on," said Brooks. A useful technique to help young children is making a calendar that shows when he'll return: The kids can put a mark on the calendar when the day is over, "so they'll have a concrete representation of when dad is coming back. And it lets them feel some sense of control."

We have so little income coming in right now that we can't afford to keep our dog. I don't know how to break the news to our 7-year-old.

This is such a tough situation: "A lot of kids would rather lose their house than their dog, and animal shelters are full of [their] pets right now," said Daniels.

"The reality is, it's going to be painful, and parents have to recognize this," said Brooks. "It's like giving away a family member. One of the things parents can say is, 'We can't take care of the dog as much as we would like but we'll make sure the dog finds a home where someone can take care of him." Keep in mind that kids may worry that if the dog is plucked out of the family, they may be next. "It may be important to say we are all staying together," Brooks said.

My wife and I both lost our jobs, and my 8-year-old's grades are falling. He keeps saying there's no point in working hard since he won't be able to find a job anyway. Is there a way to reassure him?

Validate the child's feelings, said Brooks. "But remember, validating doesn't mean you agree, it means you understand. You can say, I can understand how you would feel that way, but we both have to work very hard right now; it's a difficult time. We're hopeful that as things get better we'll be able to get jobs, but if we give up, we'll never have jobs."

Talk him down. "Emphasize that he doesn't need to worry about what the country will be like when he's an adult; that's something for adults to worry about now to make sure things are in good shape for the future," said Woolf. Also, stress that doing well in school isn't just about getting a job: It's about the pleasures of learning.

This is also a good time to remember to turn down the dial on gloom and doom in your home: Turn off the TV news, don't talk about the economy when he's around, and put aside time for having fun.

We don't have enough money for anything except essentials, including things my kids are used to having - birthday parties, summer camp, sports. My 9-year-old daughter feels ashamed and doesn't know what to tell her friends.

First of all, reassure her that they are not alone. Remind her this is happening on a massive scale across the country, that there are a lot of kids in her situation, even kids whose parents had important jobs with lots of money. Then help her figure out what she should tell her friends, and rehearse it with her. Come up with a "true and easy-to-explain story," said Woolf, such as "my family is saving money this year so I won't be going to summer camp." (Brooks's suggestion: Keep it simple. "This year I'm staying home and doing things at home.")