For many parents, the hardest part about being laid off is explaining it to the kids.
Ellen and Jim Kirchman found themselves in this predicament — twice. Jim lost his sales job at legal-products company Thomson West in December. Barely a month later, Ellen learned she's being cut from her job selling hardware for IBM.
Both Jim and Ellen had stellar performance records in their jobs, leading them to think that when it came to layoffs they might be passed over. So their layoffs came as a surprise, despite the flailing economy.
Jim, who shares child care and housework equally with Ellen, bore the brunt of breaking the news to their 7-year-old daughter, Amy, both times. (Ellen was, ironically, traveling on business when IBM gave her the news.)
"I broke it to her slowly," says Jim of his layoff from Thomson West. "I told her I'd be around more." At first, Amy was excited, but when Ellen lost her job, Amy grew more concerned. "She asked me how I was," says Ellen, who admits she was stunned. "She's started having nightmares about tornadoes."
In 2008, 2.6 million American workers lost their jobs. With about 500,000 U.S. jobs now cut every week, more parents than ever will need to have that same tough talk with their kids.
Being laid off is traumatic enough — there are worries about money, health care, the future — but being laid off as a parent adds another layer of uncertainty. You want your children to feel safe, even if you're terrified.
Experts say that the most important thing parents can do is reassure their children that everything will be OK. Children, even teenagers, look to parents to know that they will be provided for and to make sure their parents have things under control.
Of course, it's not always easy to project confidence when you've gotten the ax. You might be dealing with feelings of betrayal or even embarrassment. And while it's OK to let your child know you're frustrated about the situation, make sure you make it clear you're dealing with it.
If you're unsure about how to approach the subject with your kids, think about the unique relationship you have with your child. "Everyone is different," says Amy Joelson, a psychotherapist in New York City who works with all age groups. "No one knows how you and your child relate to each other, or what kinds of things your child tends to worry about."
For example, Ellen knew Amy played a game in which she earned jewels. She explained to Amy that money is like those jewels, and when you don't have much, you have to watch what you have.
Let your child ask questions, but make sure you ask questions too.
"If you'll be using the babysitter less, ask whether your child will miss the babysitter," suggests Joelson. "If it's a teen, she may identify with you. Ask whether she's worried about money or about you."
By showing your children that you're working through this challenge, you're modeling how to cope with setbacks, say experts.
Above all, don't look to your kids for reassurance or comfort. As a parent, your job is to communicate that you're working on finding solutions. In situations like this, children of all ages need to know that even if things are difficult now, you will make it work in the long run.
Jim, for example, has to check himself when he takes out frustration with his former employer on Amy. "I'll be thinking about my boss, and my kid is sitting in front of me, and I end up getting mad at her."
You might be struggling to balance your own emotions with the needs of your child, but, experts say, it will teach everyone in the family that you can survive big setbacks and make you stronger as a family.