04/29/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

How to Share Bad Economic News with Kids

The trick is to be honest without creating needless worry.

First of all -- your kids are already aware, at least to some degree, of what's going on in the world. 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 anxiety?

Here are four tips to keep in mind:

1. Don't make empty promises. 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. 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 and can answer the questions that arise.

Of course, you have to balance truth and secrecy. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.

Featured on KGO ABC View From the Bay, March 19, 2009.
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