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Should You Tell the Kids You Lost Your Job?

Which of the following three ways to tell your kids you lost your job works best for your family?

By Stephen Viscusi
FILED UNDER: Work Life Balance.
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Some people tell me they find it very difficult even to find the words to tell their children that they’ve lost their job. Does a 10-year-old child even know what the word “fired” or “reduction in force” means? And how much do teenagers even really understand? Can you just blame the “R word”: recession?

Let’s face it, adults barely know what the word “recession” means, so for your children of any age, they just know that dad or mom is now home all day, not working.

I grew up in Armonk, N.Y. — IBM’s world headquarters. It was the Microsoft town of the 1970s, and it was a different era for job security.

In Armonk, almost everyone’s father worked for IBM. My friends whose dads (and in those days, it was only the dads) who worked at the global headquarters in our town had already worked for IBM around the world. The kids always told me that IBM stood for “I’ve Been Moved.” If you ended up at the world headquarters, you had a job for life. It was like the Stepford Husbands: All the fathers wore a white shirt, similar ties and blue suits. Back then, it seemed that no one ever lost his job. 

I have to confess: I’ve never been fired myself, much less had to explain it to my family. But today’s economy has affected so many of my friends. Frankly, today, it’s the global reality.  

But that doesn’t make it any easier, especially when you’re thinking about what to tell the kids.

It’s especially difficult if this is the first time you have lost your job.

Explaining it to your kids can be an emotional dilemma. When it comes down to it, whatever the reason, you’ve lost your job. “Downsized,” “right-sized,” “let go,” “position eliminated”… Even if you got a great severance package, you’re still out of work. And none of this vocabulary helps explain it to your kids. They hear you networking on the phone and see you spending a lot of time on the computer, but none of it makes sense.

“Dad lost his job.” What does that mean? Did he misplace it?

“Laid-off” moms and dads tell me that sharing the news with their children is one of the hardest things they’ve ever done. There are many ways to do it, if you choose to do it at all.

The “just tell the family straight out” approach
A common approach is the “just tell the family straight out” philosophy. Mom and dad sit down and tell the children together. From the parents I have heard this from, it sounds almost like they’re sitting their children down to tell them they are getting divorced. For some of my friends, announcing a divorce would have been easier.

The “just tell the truth” family usually includes a laid-off worker who got a great severance and can keep the benefits package for a while. (Note: You may think the buyout package is great now, but wait until you see how long it takes you to find a new job.) These parents just explain it. The kids are five, 10, 17. … Everyone gets the story.

Of course, there can be a downside. What do you think your kids are thinking? Do they tell their friends? Your relatives? (Ugh! The relatives! You almost forgot about them, right?) What do you tell the relatives? Wow, getting fired for anyone just really sucks.

The “don’t worry the kids” approach
Then I have other friends who really don’t want their children to know. In some cases, it’s a pride thing. In others, because mom may have already lost more than one job, it’s a “I don’t want the kids to worry” thing. These laid-off parents actually get up in the morning, get dressed for work, and drive around — maybe stop at the mall or the gym — until the kids leave for school. Then it’s back home to start looking for work. This plan often goes awry when prospective employers call the house and leave messages your kids end up hearing. And how can you network if you’re so busy lying to your kids? This “not telling the kids” thing has got to be one stressful charade.

The “tell them what’s possible while you’re still employed” approach
So, how do you tell your kids you’re unemployed? Or do you keep it to yourself? Do you wait and see how long it takes to find a new job? I would love to hear from you — even if you’re still working — how have you or would you tell your kids the bad news?

Here is my advice. Everyone should be on “orange alert.” Be cautious, prepared and ready. Have your resume up-to-date, no matter how secure you feel.

Usually the first thing our friends and family tell us when they are fired is that they were surprised. Surprised? Half of the U.S. is unemployed, but everyone’s always shocked when it happens to them. Explain to your children now the state of the economy. Tell them that mom and dad are lucky to be working, but you never know. Teach them not to judge their friends’ parents who may have lost their jobs. Reassure them that it will be okay, because eventually you will find a new job.  

Teach your children that the most important things in life are health, family and being together. Mom or dad can always find another job, but having one another is what really matters.

Stephen Viscusi is the author of "Bulletproof Your Job" Follow him on Twitter at "WorkplaceGuru" or on Facebook or LinkedIn. You can write Stephen at Stephen@viscusi.com.

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