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Last Updated: Jan 10th, 2011 - 11:11:15


To Tell or Not to Tell?: Four Rules for Sharing Bad News with Your Children in an Economic Crisis
By Jamie Woolf
Mar 16, 2009, 01:48 PST

These days bad news is everywhere: on television, the Internet, at the office, and inevitably at home. If you’re trying to protect your kids from the worry and stress that comes along with it, leadership expert Jamie Woolf says you may be doing more harm than good. Read on for her (workplace-inspired) tips on sharing bad news with your kids.

You can’t turn on the television anymore without hearing words that make you want to reach for the mute button: economy, recession, layoffs, crisis. You hear them all day at work, too, in the form of rumors and speculation from worried coworkers. And here’s the thing: 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? Why did my best friend’s dad lose his job? And maybe even Mom, are we going to have to move out of our house like our neighbors did?

If you’re like most parents, these questions leave you tongue-tied. What do you tell your kids about the recession and your family’s economic hardships? Leadership expert Jamie Woolf has some interesting advice: Pretend your kids are anxious employees and take a cue from the communication tactics used by smart bosses.

“Business leaders aren’t the only ones who are facing the tough task of crafting reassuring but truthful messages about the state of the economy,” says Woolf, author of the new book Mom-in-Chief: How Wisdom from the Workplace Can Save Your Family from Chaos (Jossey-Bass/A Wiley Imprint, February 2009, ISBN: 978-0-4703813-1-1, $22.95). “Parents also have to be smart about how to explain the bad economic news their kids are hearing at school and at home. You want to be honest with them, but you don’t want to scare them to death.”

The first thing all parents must realize, says Woolf, is that your kids are already aware, at least to some degree, of what’s going on in the world.

“Parents are always surprised to learn what their kids know about complicated subjects like the economy,” says Woolf. “But they talk about it in class at school. 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. Just as you and your coworkers want to know if you’ll have a job tomorrow, your kids want to know what the family’s economic fate will be.”

So what is the best way to keep your kids informed without oversharing and creating needless anxiety? Here are four tips from the workplace to keep in mind:
  1. Never say never. When a university management team shared with their employees they would be able to avoid layoffs by cutting jobs through attrition, they lost credibility when the budget worsened and layoffs became inevitable. The lesson? Absolutes backfire. It’s important, with employees as well as with your children, not to make promises that aren’t within your power to keep.

    “Never say never to children,” advises Woolf. “For example, you don’t want to say, ‘Mommy will never lose her job’ or ‘We’ll always have our house.’ You may feel certain today, but circumstances can always change, and making these rigid statements will put your credibility on the line. Instead, reassure them with the truth. Tell them 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.”

  2. Keep quiet until you have specific plans. An executive director of a non-profit organization told her staff that if their big funders discontinued their grants, layoffs were inevitable. Unfortunately, she released this information before she had a plan for handling her employees’ inevitably negative reactions. Questions, which she couldn’t answer, started pouring in: Who would be laid off first? When would there be definite news about the funders continuing their grants? In the end, not having solid information for them further damaged their morale and the director’s reputation. With kids, too, caution should be the rule of the day. If you are thinking about selling your house or relocating for a new job, wait to share the news with your kids until you know as many details as possible.

    “Our kids consider what we tell them to be the absolute truth,” warns Woolf. “If you tell them the family might be moving, they will take that to mean that you are moving, and it may cause them unnecessary stress and worry. Children, especially those who are of school age, thrive on consistency. The thought of changing their lives, their home, and their friends, can be traumatic for them. Plus, if the move doesn’t happen, it can be hard for them to process what they are supposed to believe.

    “Of course, you have to balance truth and secrecy,” she adds. “If your child asks you point-blank, ‘Mommy, are you going to lose your job?’ tell her, ‘I don’t know yet,’ and then add reasonable reassurance. And don’t wait until the last minute to spring bad news on your kids. Do that and they’ll think you’ve been keeping a secret from them. Be as honest and open with them as often as you can.”

  3. Share a unified message. In the business world, when a management team leaks conflicting information, rumors fly and fear and distrust rise. In one instance, the director of nursing at a hospital leaked that there would be no staff cuts. At the same time, the administrative director shared a less reassuring message—that cuts were unlikely but possible. The mixed messages left staff feeling confused and skeptical. At home, make sure you and your partner 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,” asserts Woolf. “Make sure that the two of you are on the same page as far as what you will and will not share with the children. And if you have a big announcement, tell your children together to ensure a unified message is conveyed. Seeing the two of you as a unified front will reassure them that you are working together as a family through whatever may come your way.”

  4. Give them something to do to help. One of the worst parts of any crisis is feeling helpless to do anything about it. At the office, employees may be wringing their hands instead of helping to improve your company’s bottom line, simply because they don’t know what they can do. The same is true at home. Children are especially prone to feeling helpless, particularly in an economic crisis that they may not fully understand. Getting them involved will empower them and make them feel better about the situation at hand.

    “Explain to your kids that saving money is very important right now,” suggests Woolf. “Then ask them to help you brainstorm ways the family can save money. And give them a money-saving task that is their responsibility, like turning off lights in unoccupied rooms or gathering old toys and making posters for a family yard sale. Get them involved with lowering your grocery bill by clipping coupons together on Sunday afternoons, or having them help hunt for bargains at the store. Not only will they feel good about being involved, but it creates a new way for you to carve out some quality time together.”

    “In tough times, it can be easy to focus on all of your problems and end up forgetting how it may be affecting your kids,” says Woolf. “Handling these issues the wrong way can have long-lasting effects on your relationship with them. It may be hard to do, but worrying a little less about your bank account and a little more about your family will do you and your kids some good.

“Remember, while this tough economy is difficult, it also provides us with an opportunity to reevaluate the things in life that truly matter—our families and our children,” she concludes. “Focusing on them instead of the problems plaguing you at work and at home may be the stress reliever you’ve needed all along.”

About the Author:
Jamie Woolf is the author of Mom-in-Chief: How Wisdom from the Workplace Can Save Your Family from Chaos. In it Woolf addresses real-life quandaries, and covers everything that career-oriented women need to know to unleash their parenting potential and navigate challenges with skill and grace.

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