It’s been a startling 10 days since I was first asked to advise parents and teachers about how to talk to children about the tanking economy. Reassurance has grown more illusive. When first asked, I was not in favor of broaching the subject to children; although, of course, I recommended responding honestly to any question any child might ask. Now that worry is spreading among adults and the bad news just won’t seem to go away, I wonder whether parents who are visibly under stress should provide some very simple explanation such as, “We didn’t make as much money this year as last, so we won’t be going away for the holidays”. Add something reassuring such as “We can have a lot of fun at home, though.” What children this young care about most is the mood in the family. If they sense unusual anxiety, they may get upset. So parents can help everyone by doing their best not to let the bad economic news get them down.
It is very difficult, really impossible, to give universal advice about what to tell children about tough times. Every family’s situation is unique; different children’s level of concern or even curiosity varies by age, personality, and so much more. So, of course, there isn’t one right answer to the question about what to tell the children at a time like this. I do feel that for young children whose parents are not consumed with worry, in families that have not had to make radical changes, such as giving up their homes, there is little reason to broach the subject. Answer any questions that the children ask in as simple terms as possible. Especially for children age 8 or younger, make your answers very concrete and specific. If you go on and on about the subtleties, you’ll lose them. All they really want to know is “Will our family be o.k.?” and “What will I have to give up?”
When describing what may have to be given up, point out that most of their friends are in the same situation. There is not enough money for such luxuries in most families right now. Things will get better, but it may take awhile. The good news is “we are all fine and together; and we will stay fine”. (Needless to say, when the facts about health and/or separations are different, this form of reassurance will need to be modified.)
If, on the other hand, a parent has lost her job or her home and is very anxious or irritable, young children, in particular, are inclined to personalize that mood change—blame themselves; so explaining that you have this specific worry on your mind can even be a relief. If you’ve lost your job, assure your child that you will get another one and be o.k., even if you are not convinced about that yourself.
In sum, I don’t think that news stories are likely to alarm most children, unless their parents are palpably troubled by the economy. Older children are going to be focused on what they have to give up and some may show some purely intellectual interest in the issues once they feel they themselves are safe. History can help to show them that ups and downs are a fact of economic reality. Personalize your discussion by mentioning any important family safe guards, such as savings, insurance, rainy day funds or extended family’s readiness to assist.