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Explaining a Job Loss to Kids

Katie Wawrzaszek was 4 when her father, Ed, was laid off from his job as a tech-support representative for an office-equipment company. "I never talked to her about it," says Ed Wawrzaszek, of Rochester, NY. "Then one day she asked, 'Daddy, when are you going back to work?' I told her, 'I hope real soon, sweetheart.' " A few minutes later, she ran back in with her bank, saying, "You can have my piggy bank to get us some bacon."

Wawrzaszek understood. Before the layoff, Katie would always ask her father where he'd been all day. His answer: "Bringing home the bacon."

Even if you haven't said a word, a parent's job loss will probably appear on the radar of kids as young as a year, says Keith Crnic, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Pennsylvania State University. The risk: A child may misinterpret what she sees and hears, overreact, or feel guilty. How to handle the situation:

  • Get a grip on your emotions. It's frightening for a child to see a parent upset, so vent privately to other adults. If you've had a discouraging morning of job hunting, go for a jog, meditate, or steam in a bubble bath before you face your family.

  • Don't keep the job loss a secret. Explain it simply to a child old enough to grasp what you're saying  -- about age 4 or 5. Tell her that your job has ended and you're looking for a new one. Don't make the situation sound worse than it is: Avoid phrases like "We can't spend any money."

  • Maintain your child's usual routine. Kids need a predictable schedule to feel secure. So while taking a trip to the park together midweek can be a silver lining for an unemployed parent, make sure such events are only occasional treats. Unless your financial situation is dire, continue with your regular daycare arrangements.

  • Remember that you're still a parent. It's easy to let a job search consume every waking hour. Devote a specific amount of time to it each day, then focus on your family. Your child needs to know that nothing changes your love for her.
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