How to Tell the Kids You’ve Been Canned

By Emma Johnson

In case you’re one of six people in the U.S. who missed the movie Up in the Air, allow me to describe one of its more poignant scenes: George Clooney’s character, Ryan, is firing Bob, a middle-management worker who breaks down and worries what his kids will think about his newfound unemployment.

"You know why kids love athletes?" Ryan asks him.

"Because they screw lingerie models," Bob replies.

"No, that’s not why we love athletes. Kids love them because they follow their dreams."

From there, Ryan convinces Bob that his pink slip is really a ticket to fulfillment, integrity and a future as the parental role model he only dreamed of being.

Of course, this is a movie. Not all newly unemployed parents are guided to this epiphany by a stunningly gorgeous Yoda character, but there are some fundamentals for breaking the bad news to the kids, says Tina Tessina, therapist and author of Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting About the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage.

"Don’t hide the fact that you lost your job from your children," Tessina says. "They need to know what’s going on, and what it means in their terms."

Explain What it Means for Them

When Angela Larson’s entire division was eliminated in November 2008, she told her then three and five-year-olds what happened in matter-of-fact terms: Her analyst position would be replaced with a new home-based consulting business as well as a toy company, Fierce Fun Toys. "I told them straight-up that I wasn’t going to work on Wall Street any more, and that my company didn’t want me or what I do," recalls the New York resident. "I explained I’d be working from home in the bedroom and that meant that when I was at my desk I couldn’t talk or play. I also explained that working at home means more time with them and also that we’d have to be more careful with how we spend money."

Ask About Their Fears and Priorities

Denis Cauvier, financial consultant and co-author of The ABCs of Making Money and The ABCs of Making Money for Teens, emphasizes that when it comes to older kids, the key is to ask – not tell. "You’ll likely find that family, friends and security rank high on their list of core values," Cauvier says. "That’s important because none of those things are threatened if they don’t have the latest gadget, toy or the most popular brand of shoes."

Involve Older Children

"As they grow, children should first learn what money means, how much it costs to buy things, and how the money to buy things is earned," Tessina says. "By the time they’re teenagers, they should understand all the aspects of your household finance, and how the business aspect of marriage and family works. If they don’t learn this important life skill from you, where will they learn it?"

Adds Cauvier: "Encourage them to brainstorm ways to save money. This can range from turning the lights off when they leave the room to opening the windows instead of turning on the air conditioning."

Use This as an Opportunity

"If you talk about what’s on the news – such as what’s happening in the housing market or big corporate layoffs – they can understand why people can have money problems and how to keep themselves financially safe," Tessina observes. "Then, when something happens in your own financial life, they will have a basis for understanding it."

Share your own feelings – carefully

Even if you don’t think your child is old enough to understand what’s happening, don’t ignore the impact your own stress has on your children, says Jennifer Jones, author of The Three Ps of Parenting (Power, Protection, Prediction) and a child development expert.

"The younger the child, the more likely he is to internalize blame for any problems mommy or daddy are experiencing," Jones says. "They are cognitively wired to respond to our fear, anger, frustration, grief and general distress with self blame. When you are upset, your child just assumes he has done something to cause it."

That is, unless you ascribe the stress to other forces. Instead of ignoring stresses or hiding job loss, tell your kids directly, try to phrase the changes in a positive light, but keep it real.

"You have an opportunity in the face of hardship to strengthen and empower them in ways life rarely affords you the opportunity to do," says Jones.

Emma Johnson is a New York based journalist who writes about money, business and finance for publications including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur, Forbes, MSN Money and others. Reach her at emma@emma-johnson.net.

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