How parents can be honest with children about financial stresses while avoiding making them feel too burdened.
By Wendy Mogel
Even as some states are reopening, many parents face telling their children that things they were looking forward to are effectively still canceled for them — because they can no longer afford them.
Economic distress from the pandemic is widespread, and many experts expect it will be long-lasting. The Labor Department reported on Friday that more than 20.5 million people in the United States lost their jobs in April, and the unemployment rate went to 14.7 percent.
As a psychologist and author of parenting books living in Los Angeles, many of the clients I counsel are terrified. (Many work in the entertainment industry, and are uncertain of their future; nearly all production except animation is shut down indefinitely.) Parents can try to hide fears about having enough money for rent and food, but children’s eyes and ears are sharp.
This is going to require some very difficult family conversations, to help children set new expectations in this new world. Even if camps and restaurants reopen, it could be that your children don’t go to camp and your family can’t go out to eat.
How you have these conversations will vary, of course, depending on the age and temperament of the children and on your new economic situation.
But I don’t have to tell you that our responsibility, now as always, is to be truthful with our children without scaring them. We have to be cautious about promising children that things are going to get better, instead offering hope that things might get better.
I know that 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.
Consider your pain and worry first
Do not underestimate the unprecedented situation you and the rest of the world are in, and the psychological impact of economic uncertainty.
In our consumer economy and cultural moment of competitive self-branding, meeting the basic challenge of stretching the budget and separating what we want (or have been accustomed to) 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 and respect by noting that you remain a devoted and attentive parent even in this wildly uncharted environment.
You may be feeling some combination of bitterness and shame, catastrophizing, 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. Self-blame is seductive because it gives an illusion of control.
Where to start
If it’s true, reassure your children that you have enough money to pay bills and to buy food and that if you run low, family and friends will help out. 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 be reassuring for them to know about your resources and plans.
Remain calm and curious about their questions. Even if it’s new for you to talk with your children about your financial situation (many parents find this essential topic even trickier than talking about sex) you are laying the foundations of being an “askable” parent.
Speak difficult truths
When talking to your children, you will need to decide how much to share, depending on your children’s age and ability to absorb bad news and curated 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.
You’ve already taught the children about how people adjust to a pandemic — hand-washing and wearing masks help keep us from getting sick. Introducing them to the concept of adjusting to a changed economic reality is another opportunity to teach them about real life.
If preschoolers sense that job loss is a secret, their 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 what you’re doing with your time now.
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 that you will always share news with them and answer their questions.
Don’t overshare or underprepare. Be frank with your teenagers about the family finances in a collegial, we’re-figuring-out-our-next-steps-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 summer camp or vacation? You’re likely to hear some version of:
“THIS ISN’T HAPPENING! … No way! Not fair! You promised! … Where am I supposed to go all summer? … WHAT do I tell my friends?”
As challenging as it may be, try to respect your children’s disappointment without defensiveness. Of course the pandemic wasn’t your fault, but your children may 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.
Resist selling an unconvincing silver lining
It’s tempting to patch over the pain with fast talk, spin, bribery, a hard sell of alluring alternatives or wishful crystal ball predictions:
Gap year! And then everything back to normal.
But next summer you can go to camp for eight weeks!
Maybe. The new reality is that we just don’t know. Don’t strip your smart children of dignity with “but, but, but.”
Instead, be honest. Promise only what you really can deliver. For example, you might say: Even if camp is open this year, we’re not going to be able to pay for it. But we can definitely pop up the tent in the backyard and sleep out there.
Introduce the world through a different lens
It’s tempting to find someone to blame. Cynicism about your future prospects, mockery of adult leaders or scapegoating leaves 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 troubles, anxiety or self-pity to pride and satisfaction and a connection to the community.
Look for ways your children can help others without spending money and 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.
Let the children lead
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 we analyze, fret and stew, young people hop from anguish to ecstasy: how perfectly the cupcakes turned out, a totally one-of-a kind homemade face mask, a TikTok dance move mastered.
Enjoy this small-scale serendipity with them; don’t let the pandemic hijack wonder and delight. It will be good for you too.
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 the book he or she was 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 for our future selves.
Explain that as the economy reopens, your situation may change. You may find a new job that will involve a different schedule, and that may affect your children’s routines. There may be a new child care arrangement.
As with all difficult topics, this is not a one-time conversation. Your circumstances may change and your children may have new questions. Check in from time to time, and update them if there are developments. In this new reality, you’ll need the whole family to operate as a resilient little team.