In today's economic climate, many parents are facing or experiencing unemployment. Unemployment is an ordeal for the adult as well as a challenge for his or her partner, and children. Although it is a family ordeal, it is also an opportunity for family reflection, support, and growth. Some things that are helpful to keep in mind are:
- Almost invariably, unemployed parents will experience some degree of anxiety and/or depression. Children will sense this change in their parent, as well as notice more obvious changes in daily routine.
- Parents should be honest about the situation as well as their reactions, in a way that is appropriate for the age of their child. The child under six needs to know that daddy or mommy is no longer working at their place of employment because the company did not have enough money to keep paying daddy/mommy. The child, seven and over, can be offered more details.
- Children need to be told that the family will not run out of money and that the government helps families at these times. Perhaps there are other reassuring things that can be added. Maybe mommy and daddy have saved some money to help if they lost a job, or grandmother and grandfather have offered to help.
- Children also need to understand that losing a job is a very common situation. It might help to mention the names of other people that they know who have had periods of unemployment, even if it was voluntary or a long time ago. It is most helpful if these are people with whom the child is close.
- If a parent's anxiety or depression is significant, children will benefit from an explanation. It is important to convey that daddy or mommy are more worried than they have to be, or sadder than they have to be. If the reaction is not explained as being extreme, children might feel that there is really something to be worried about and their sense of protection and safety might be shaken.
It is difficult for an unemployed parent to see unemployment as an opportunity. Yet, even if it was not the choice of the parent, the situation offers two kinds of opportunity. Parents have the opportunity to reassess their job or career, and possibly to move in a more satisfying direction within or outside their current field of work. Children have the opportunity to learn from their parents about facing and mastering difficult situations in life. After all, children will, one day, face disappointment and challenge. What lessons will they carry, deep down, on the basis of their exposure to their parental models? The ways in which a parent deals with their own challenge is, in the long run, much more important than even the ways in which the parent explains the unemployment. In this spirit, the following questions are worthwhile for a parent to consider:
- Is the parent modeling activity (rather than passivity) in response to the challenge? For example, does the parent rapidly engage (and show to the child) work on resume, review of newspapers? During spare time, is the parent engaged in something productive (including spending time with his or her children!), as opposed to sitting around moping?
- Are the parents modeling support and solidarity, or does the stress lead to marital tension and fighting? If there is fighting, this will raise profound questions for the child about "love for better and for worse".
- Can the parent be brave and convey a reasonable sense of optimism to the child? If so, the child is being taught that justified confidence in one's own resources and worthwhileness will sustain someone in times of trouble.
- Can the parent manage to maintain a positive attitude about their former company and its employees, even though they might have (and could reasonably express) resentments about their termination? It is important for a child to see that disappointment does not have to turn into resentment, blaming, and denigration.
Parental unemployment can be a scary and demoralizing time for adults. At such times, parents are especially challenged to look beyond themselves and consider their child's perspective and needs. If a parent can make that extra, in some situations, almost heroic effort, they will be teaching profound lessons to their child about love, perseverance, and belief in oneself and family.
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