What to Tell Kids About the Economy

By Jamie Woolf

You can't turn on the TV these days without hearing words that make you want to reach for the mute button: economy, recession, layoffs, crisis. If you're constantly immersed in economic anxiety, it's likely your kids are too. Chances are you've already fielded some tough questions: What does recession mean? Will Dad lose his job? Are we going to have to move out of our house?

What do you tell children about the recession and your family's economic hardships? How do you protect your kids from worry and stress without over-shielding them--or creating needless anxiety? Here are some tips on talking to kids about the economy without scaring them.

Jamie Woolf is author of “Mom-in-Chief: How Wisdom from the Workplace Can Save Your Family from Chaos” and a leadership consultant. Learn more at www.mominchief.com.

If You Know, They Know

The first thing all parents must realize is that your kids are already aware, at least to some degree, of what’s going on in the world. They discuss with their friends things they heard their parents say around the dinner table. So if they come to you with questions and you don’t give them straight answers, you damage your credibility as a parent.

Make a Promise You Can Keep

Never say never. It’s important not to make promises that aren’t within your power to keep. For example, you don’t want to say “Daddy will never lose his job” or “We’ll always have our house.” You may feel certain today, but circumstances can always change. Instead, reassure them with the truth--that no matter what happens, your family will stick it out together. That’s one promise you know you will always be able to keep.

Give a Unified Message

Make sure you and your spouse are in agreement about what to share and what to keep quiet.  During any kind of crisis that involves your family, the number one priority should be maintaining the lines of communication between you and your partner.  If you have a big announcement, tell your children together.  Seeing the two of you keep a united front will reassure them that you are working together as a family through whatever may come your way.

Don’t Share Worries Prematurely

If you are thinking about selling your house or relocating for a new job, wait until your plans are clear before you share the news with your kids. If you tell them the family might be moving, it may cause them unnecessary stress and worry. Of course, you have to balance truth and secrecy. If your child asks you point-blank, “Mommy, are we moving?” tell her, “I don’t know yet,” and then add reasonable reassurance.

Give Kids a Way to Help

Children are especially prone to feeling helpless in a crisis they may not understand. Getting them involved will empower them and make them feel better. Explain to your kids that saving money is very important right now. Ask them to help you brainstorm ways the family can save money. Give them tasks like turning off lights or gathering old toys for a yard sale. Clip coupons together or hunt for bargains. Not only will they feel good about being involved, but it creates a new way for you to carve out some quality time together.

Help Them Build Resilience

Of course, we never want our children to feel pain.  But for your own peace of mind, remember that good parenting doesn't mean shielding your child from hardship but helping them manage the hard emotions--the sadness or confusion or fear--that come from challenges. Helping children through adversity builds their resilience muscles, which will strengthen them later on when they face life’s inevitable hardships.

There are two messages you can’t repeat enough when children express difficult emotions: “It’s normal to feel what you’re feeling” and “I’m always here for you.”

Handle the Shame

Many children feel ashamed when they can’t afford to do something they used to do, like go to summer camp or buy new clothes. Help your child figure out what to say to friends. Come up with a true and easy-to-explain story like “My family is saving money this year, so I won't be going to camp.” Encourage your child to express her feelings, ask what she's most embarrassed about, and talk it through, conveying your confidence in her ability to get through challenging times.

If You Have to Move

Many families are losing their homes. There’s no getting around the trauma of moving out of a beloved house. But don’t forget that a home is not about a building, it’s about the togetherness and the love a family shares. Explain that no matter where you move, your family will always have a home together.

Keep It Together Yourself

If you’re not sleeping at night because you’re worried about your job and making house payments, don't pretend everything’s great--but don't fall apart in front of the kids either. Find safe outlets where you can lose it. Seek out people you trust who believe in you. Your kids can already sense your anxiety. Be honest that you're worried, but also let them that you believe things will be OK.

Turn Discouragement into Hope

Many children are worried about the future, but emphasize to them that it’s not their job to worry; that's something for adults to fix now to make sure things are in good shape. Be careful about sending gloom-and-doom messages, and help them face the future with hope. Remind yourself you're setting an example for your children about how to cope with a difficult situation.

Take a Break from Bad News

Turn off the TV news and talk about lighter things than the economy at the dinner table. Set aside a “no bad news zone” and focus on good news that’s happening as well.

Have Low-Cost Fun

Enjoy family time. Have a nature day--go for a hike in the woods and have a picnic. Play board games. Read stories together. Sing and make up skits. You may not be in the mood, but once you get started, you’ll likely feel a shift and find your anxiety easing. The tough economy provides us with an opportunity to reevaluate the things in life that truly matter--our families, our friends, and our spiritual beliefs. Focusing on these--instead of the problems plaguing you--may relieve your stress as well.

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