Even as some states are reopening, many parents face telling their children that things they were looking forward to are effectively still canceled — because families can no longer afford them.
Parents can try to hide fears about having enough money for rent and food, but children’s eyes and ears are sharp.
As a psychologist and author of parenting books, I have clients who are terrified. But I don’t have to tell you that parents’ responsibility, as always, is to be truthful with our children without scaring them. We have to be cautious about promising that things are going to get better, instead offering hope that things might get better.
One challenge for parents is to find the right language and tone to honestly tell children about the family’s troubles without burdening them with the responsibility for shoring up the adults. Here’s my advice on how to handle this.
Do not underestimate the psychological impact of economic uncertainty.
Meeting the basic challenge of stretching the budget and separating what we want from what we need is hard. When it’s complicated by the psychological loss of a job title and status as a provider, it’s harder. Treat yourself with dignity by noting that you remain a devoted and attentive parent even in this wildly uncharted environment.
You could be feeling some combination of bitterness and shame, terror about prolonged unemployment or worry about falling ill, and a loss of identity if you have lost your job or your partner has.
If you’ve retained your health benefits, take advantage of therapy via telemedicine. Or join an online parent support group. Or have a heart-to-heart with your inner critic.
WHERE TO START
If it’s true, reassure your children that you have enough money to pay bills and buy food and that if you run low, family and friends will help. If you’re receiving unemployment benefits, job hunting, pivoting your business in a new direction, or taking classes to learn new skills, share some of the details. It will reassure them.
Remain calm and curious about their questions.
You need to decide how much to share, depending on your children’s age and ability to absorb bad news. It should be fashioned for what they need to know.
Take a slow breath. Aim for calm, candid and brief. Consider your tone — the melody is more important than the lyrics.
Preschoolers: If preschoolers sense that job loss is a secret, imagination will take over. “Something bad happened to the grown-ups! Something bad will happen to me!” Next, they’re waking up with bad dreams, fearful about being alone in a room, tearful over small frustrations.
Allow simple facts to banish the monster under the bed. Tell them you’re not working with the same people or at the same place as you were before, and tell them what you’re doing with your time now.
Older children: Older children will be eager to know how your job loss will affect their lives. “Can we still order dinner? Will I go back to my same school? Will we be homeless soon?” Shrink dramatic predictions with reassurance about what will stay the same, what might change, and assure them that you will share news with them and answer their questions.
Teenagers: Don’t overshare or under prepare. Be frank with your teenagers about the family finances in a collegial, we’re-figuring-out-our-nextsteps-here manner. Let them surprise you with suggestions for what to do. Don’t demean ideas like “We can start a YouTube channel!” Instead, approach their up-to-date take on survival skills with an open mind.
Allow your children to grieve. It probably won’t be pretty. Expect tears, confusion or anger among younger kids, and feigned indifference or cold shoulders from older ones. Or the reverse. Remember that heartbreak can sound like entitlement. No vacation? You’re likely to hear some version of:
“This isn’t happening! … no way! Not fair! You promised!”
Try to respect that disappointment without defensiveness. Of course the pandemic wasn’t your fault, but your children could lash out at you. Take it as a good sign. It means that they heard you and trust that you are sturdy enough to be able to absorb their feelings.
It’s tempting to patch over the pain with fast talk, spin, bribery:
But next summer you can go to camp for eight weeks!
Maybe. Don’t strip your smart children of dignity with possibly false silver linings. Be honest.
It’s tempting to find someone to blame. Cynicism about your prospects, mockery of adult leaders or scapegoating leave children feeling vulnerable. Instead, this unexpected period could be viewed as an opportunity to teach and be of service.
Having a sense of purpose is a powerful antidote to helplessness. It changes our mental channel from anxiety or self-pity to pride, satisfaction and a connection to the community.
Look for ways your children can help others — without spending money — while also maintaining social distance: Depending on their age and interests, perhaps they can join a program to be matched with older people as pen pals, volunteer to work on a political campaign or become online tutors to younger kids.
The prefrontal cortex, the brain region responsible for foresight, hindsight and impulse control, doesn’t finish developing in girls until their mid-20s and a few years later in boys. So while adults analyze, fret and stew, young people hop from anguish to ecstasy: how perfectly the cupcakes turned out, a one-of-a-kind homemade face mask, a dance move mastered.
Enjoy with them. Don’t let the pandemic ban wonder and delight.
As adults, moving from macro thinking to micro moments requires intention and self-control. But go outside. Wander around your block and look for beauty.
With your child, read a book assigned for school and gossip about the characters. Speculate about their motives. “I was so surprised when (protagonist made a particular choice); were you?” Take advantage of the privacy you share with your children: Call them affectionate nicknames without the risk of embarrassing them in front of friends, build your store of private jokes. We are making memories here.
Explain that as the economy reopens, your situation could change. You might find a new job that will involve a different schedule, and that could affect your children’s routines.
As with all difficult topics, this is not a one-time conversation. Check in from time to time, and update them. In this new reality, you’ll need the whole family to operate as a resilient little team.
Wendy Mogel is a clinical psychologist whose latest book is “Voice Lessons for Parents: What to Say, How to Say It and When to Listen.”