How to talk to your preschooler about a layoff

By Ziba Kashef
Last updated: March 2009

Don’t put it off.  As soon as you’ve absorbed the news enough to be calm and have a sense of how it’s going to affect your family, talk to your child.  “It’s a danger for parents to assume that kids aren’t paying attention,” says Judith Myers-Walls, a professor of child development and family studies at Purdue University.

Preschoolers will pick up on your mood and other changes – like if Dad is still in his pajamas after breakfast.  “Kids might make up a reality that can be more confusing or disastrous than it needs to be,” says Myers-Walls.  Don’t leave them to figure it out; talk to them promptly.

Assume your preschooler will blab.  “At that age, children are terrible at keeping secrets,” says Myers-Walls.  Decide what you’re okay with people knowing about the layoff.  Then share details with your child accordingly: “Mommy isn’t going to work for a while, but she’s looking for a new job.”  Maybe not: “We’re borrowing money from Grandma and Grandpa to pay the rent.”

Focus on what will change for your child… “Share the news in terms of what’s obvious to them,” says Stanley Greenspan, coauthor of The Secure Child: Helping Our Children Feel Safe and Confident in a Changing World.  If there’s a major change – your child will no longer be going to preschool, for instance, or you’ll now be the one dropping him off – that’s what he needs to know.

Emphasize the positive, like the chance to spend more time together:  “I’m excited I’ll be able to pick you up, and happy we can have dinner together more often.”

… and what won’t change.  Even a small change in routine can be unsettling to a young child.  So, after you break the news, list some of the things that won’t change, like, for example, that you will all still be living in the same house, that you’ll be visiting Grandma and Grandpa as planned, and that you or Daddy will still make breakfast every morning.

Skip the economic seminar.  Preschoolers don’t need a lecture on the economy.  They won’t get it.  A 4-year old will understand more about jobs than a 2- or 3-year old, but that doesn’t mean he’ll grasp what a “layoff” is.

When talking about it, use the words he uses.  You might say, “Remember when you visited me at work?  Well, that place doesn’t need me to do that job anymore, so I’m looking for another place to work.”

Spare your child the gory details.  You may be seething, but your preschooler doesn’t need to hear about it.  He should also be shielded from your deepest concerns about paying the bills.  “You don’t want to take away a child’s sense of security,” says Myer-Walls.

Because preschoolers tend to see things in black and white, put a positive spin on the situation and give examples of how you’re coping: “Daddy isn’t going to work for a while, but I’m going to call some people today about a new job for me.”

Don’t make promises you can’t keep.  You might be tempted to say that you’ll be getting a new job soon or “in a month” or that your child can resume dance lessons “in the summer.”  But if it takes longer, your child might feel betrayed.  It’s better to admit that you just don’t know but you’ll do your best to get things back to normal.

Listen.  Ask your child if he has any questions.  You’ll get a sense of what he’s absorbed and what you might need to clarify.  You’ll also find out what, if anything, is worrying him so you can reassure him.  “You help your child cope by being a good empathetic listener,” says Greenspan.


Ziba Kashef: San Francisco Bay Area - Public Affairs and Communications Specialist at The San Francisco Foundation

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