Talking To Kids About Job Loss & Finances: Your Burning Questions Answered

Photo by Josh Appel on Unsplash

For some parents, their biggest worry in 2020 will not be about good schools or grades. Covid-19 has battered the global economy, and Singapore has not been spared. Unemployment is likely to increase in the coming months, and if parents are worried that their jobs are on the line, these fears are not unfounded.

Local research agency Blackbox surveyed over 700 Singaporeans on their financial outlook for this year, and found that:

  • 64% expected to be financially worse off in 2020, compared to 2019. 
  • 7% said they had lost their job.
  • 15% had their wages reduced, and 17% were working fewer hours.

Here’s an even starker statistic — Maybank economists have predicted that there could be between 150,000 and 200,000 retrenchments this year. The Singapore government has also announced its plans to create 100,000 jobs and training opportunities in the coming year to support workers.

For parents in our KSP community who are facing job loss or job insecurity, it’s a painful burden to shoulder. But you don’t have to go through this alone — your family, and even your children, can be a vital source of support. For this to happen, you will need to have honest conversations about the family’s financial situation. 

To help parents in this difficult predicament, we spoke to Shem Yao, head of parenting at the TOUCH Integrated Family Group. He has worked in social services for over a decade, with expertise in parenting coaching. Read on for our conversation with him, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

KSP: Some parents think that finances should not be discussed with kids at all, because it’s an “adult matter.” From your experience, do local families tend to feel this way? 

Shem Yao: In an Asian context, the discussion of finances can be a sensitive topic, even among adults. Parents may feel that children do not understand the value of money, or are not able to contribute solutions to a financial situation. However, parents can take active steps to educate their children by discussing the positive aspects of finances, such as financial literacy. They can help their children to understand the concepts of savings and giving, and even the concept of investing as their children get older.

KSP: For parents facing financial troubles, what should they consider before broaching this topic with their kids?

SY: Parents need to understand that broaching such a topic with their children requires adequate preparation, taking into consideration how it may affect a child’s emotions and anticipating their responses and questions. Parents should consider using appropriate words that younger children can understand easily. If the child has a predisposition towards anxiety, parents may prefer to broach the topic in phases, for example, “Dad is taking a break from work” when a retrenchment happens, and “Dad is looking for new work” when the job hunt begins.

KSP: What are some age-appropriate ways to open a conversation with kids about job-related issues?

SY: The concept of a job loss or pay cut may be abstract for preschoolers, so parents would need to explain the situation to their young children using simple language and examples that they can relate to. Using storybooks to broach the topic can help younger children to understand the situation better without causing fear. The book “Daddy Lost His Job” by Jennifer Moore-Mallinos (available as a read-aloud video on YouTube) is an example of a children’s book that uses cheerful illustrations and down-to-earth language to tackle the challenging issue of losing a job.

For primary schoolers and teens, having a family conference or conversation with everyone involved can be helpful, and it sets the stage for everyone to hear the news from parents directly. This would provide a platform for children to ask questions and share their thoughts and feelings, which prevents any nagging uncertainties they may have from spiralling into bigger negative emotions. The conversation could also include a discussion on how the family can come together to help the children cope with changes. 

KSP: What should be the objective of such conversations?

SY: Such conversations should help children view the situation objectively, and prepare them for possible lifestyle changes. Instead of instilling fear in children, parents should reassure them that despite the changes, they will still be loved and cared for.

During such conversations, parents should objectively state the facts, such as a retrenchment or severe pay cut; respond to any questions, worries or fears; and share how the family can cope with the lack of finances together. Parents can also be honest about how this is affecting them, and how children can help during this period, which allows children to contribute.

KSP: Is there anything parents should avoid saying?

SY: Parents should avoid expressing bitterness about their situation as much as possible, and be mindful of their own signs of stress. Children can pick up on your frustration or stress, which may cause them to experience high levels of fear and anxiety.

KSP: What are some signs that children might be stressed about their parents’ financial situation?

SY: Some common signs are:

  • Irritability
  • Making negative statements about life
  • Generally anxious questions about the future, and about the safety of the family 
  • Increased fighting and arguing with siblings and adults 
  • Frequent complaints about somatic (physical) symptoms such as headaches, stomach aches, nausea, or general weakness. Your child’s school may also alert you about such complaints from your child.
  • Greater demands for parents’ attention; being clingy or having separation anxiety 
  • Spontaneous offers to help the family with finances 
  • Appearance of tics, nervous habits, or nervous behaviours

KSP: What should parents do if they find their children exhibiting these signs?

SY: Routines help instil a sense of security in children, especially the younger ones. To reduce the stress that their children may be facing, parents should aim to maintain some form of normalcy in their children’s daily routine as much as possible, even as you cut back on certain activities due to financial constraints.

Parents can explain to children why they may be preoccupied, for example due to a job search or taking on several ad-hoc jobs. In addition, parents may make a list of the challenges they are facing and share it, and get their children to list their own challenges and fears too. Work through the lists as a family, and celebrate small successes as you overcome each item on the list.

While spending more time at home due to retrenchment or shortened work hours, parents can use this period to spend time with their children, deepening relationships or having fun without incurring further expenses. Seeing that their parents are around and engaging them helps children to reduce the anxiety that they may be experiencing, and feel safe.

KSP: What’s a healthy money mindset that parents should pass on to kids, even during times of difficulty? For instance, a parent may avoid saying “This is too expensive,” and instead opt to say “If you would like this, we will need to save for it. Let’s plan how we can do that.”

SY: Parents can guide their children to make decisions by teaching the concept of “needs versus wants.” This empowers children with the ability to think critically about their need for something and make balanced and sound decisions in the future, instead of squandering their savings on the first “want” that comes to mind.

KSP: Any surprising tips for talking to children about money issues, which parents may not be aware of?

SY: Some parents reward their children with money if they fulfil their responsibilities, such as helping with simple household chores or even finishing their homework. We do not encourage this, as such basic responsibilities are expected of the child and should not be turned into special tasks that they are willing to do only because of monetary rewards.

Instead, differentiate between basic responsibilities that are expected, based on age appropriateness, and tasks that are special or more advanced, which children can be rewarded for after completion.

Here are some examples of “basic” versus “advanced” responsibilities:

  • Keeping one’s room neat (basic) vs. changing bed sheets (advanced)
  • Returning one’s cutlery after meals to the sink (basic) vs. washing the dishes (advanced)
  • Completing one’s homework (basic) vs. scoring full marks or showing significant improvement on a test (advanced)

Need a listening ear? Connect with our community on the Covid-19 discussion thread, or share your retrenchment stories here.