Articles > Worried about work? Mind what you tell kids

Worried about work? Mind what you tell kids
Globe & Mail, November 12, 2008

Barbara Moses, Ph.D, is an international speaker, work/life expert, and best-selling author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth About Work, Relationships, and the Rest of Life.

My father owned a small bridal-veil business. Almost every night, he complained about how slow business was, always blaming the state of the economy.

The effect of his constant tough-times chatter: I always felt insecure. I felt guilty when money was spent on me and worried there wouldn't be enough. It wasn't until I hit my teenaged years that I realized that, while we weren't rich, we certainly weren't poor, and the economy moves in cycles.

My father's anxiety had an even longer-lasting effect on my attitude toward work and career. On the one hand, it made me self-reliant and driven - arguably positive career-management characteristics. On the other, it made me chronically skittish. As a result, I developed a bedrock belief for most of my career that it was tough to make a living and you could never relax.

My experience illustrates a point that parents grappling with the current economic uncertainty need to keep in mind: With everything they say and do in handling their own careers and career worries, they are sending important and lasting messages to their children.

There are valuable lessons to be learned by kids in these times. The challenge is to make sure they don't become casualties of the economic downturn, in their immediate sense of stability and in their longer-term expectations and attitudes about work security and career management, and in how they handle adversity.

These messages will help determine whether they feel entitled or become scrappy self-managers, whether they develop the ability to cope or fall apart when exposed to tough challenges, and whether they are relaxed or anxious about work.

Want to send the right messages? Bear these ideas in mind in your interactions around the house:

Keep your emotions in check

During the recession of the early nineties, a friend talked constantly about the possibility of his business going bankrupt. He created such anxiety in his 12-year-old son that the boy actually asked if he'd have to quit school and get a job.

It is natural for people threatened by the spectre of job loss, business slowdown or budget cutbacks to become tense, anxious and depressed. But you have to be mindful of what you say about it around your kids.
Don't catastrophize, overstating the direness of the situation with unfounded comments, such as: "I'm going to get fired. I'll never find another job."

Edit what you say and how you say it, so that you don't engender unnecessary panic. Children need to feel they can count on parents to look after their needs; constant chatter about job or business challenges is unsettling.

Your children are not your confidants. Feeling scared? Talk to your partner or friends, not your kids.

Don't be a Pollyanna

While you don't want to create anxiety, you also don't want to present an unrealistic view of what is happening in the work world, in general, and to your job, in particular. Giving your kids a sense that everything is perfect and you are completely secure in your job is not doing them any favours.

In fact, many young people I've spoken to have rued the fact their parents never shared with them realities of work and some of its challenges.
One 29-year-old in a workshop I ran said that one reason she believes she has so much difficulty dealing with work stress and uncertainty is that her "parents made it all seem so easy."

She said that made her too thin-skinned: she never learned that sometimes things can go wrong on the job and that there are ways of getting through such difficulties.

Other kids react to parental overprotection by being too relaxed in their career expectations. They assume employers will always look after them, or that jobs will always come easily their way. They are shocked when things turn sour at work or they experience difficulties in a job search.

Who's to blame? Place it on the shoulders of indulgent helicopter parents, who are so convinced they will induce trauma if they let their kids know that sometimes it's tough out there, and you can't always get what you want.

Tailor your message

All communication should be age-appropriate.

One friend says she wouldn't talk about the economy to her 12-year-old son because it's too abstract. "He wouldn't understand. I only talk about things which directly impact his life, without over-explaining. Like, I may not make as much money this year so you can't get new Nikes."

A six-year-old cannot be expected to understand much more about what it means to lose a job than "Mummy needs to find another job because she wants to work and needs to make money."

A 14-year-old, on the other hand, is capable of comprehending that things may be tight for the next little while; you can, and should, share more information with him or her than you would with a younger child.

However, as with all conversational topics with teenagers, adjust what you raise and how much you tell them to their level of interest.

Your child's personality will also make a difference to what you can say. Sensitive, introverted children may become more disturbed if they sense you are depressed or anxious about your work situation. Extroverted kids, more capable of rolling with the punches, will likely be less emotionally affected.

Be real but reassuring

If your income is threatened, you need to inject a measure of realism in your kids' lifestyle expectations. But they also need to be reassured that the truly important things in their lives will not change.

They may need to forgo the latest video game, but they will still have their friends, family and home. And yes, they will still get their allowance.

Model pro-active behaviour

How your kids see you handle your work worries may significantly shape how they handle their own work worries later.

Many young workers have told me they learned the importance of career management from parents who lost jobs during past recessions.

Those who saw parents emotionally crippled by a layoff learned what not to do. As one 29-year-old client said, "My father worked for the same company for 32 years and then he was tossed out like yesterday's garbage. He then had a breakdown. My lesson was I would never give a company that much power over me and my well-being, or assume a company would look after me."

But others learned about resilience. As one 32-year-old client said: "Having witnessed both my parents lose their jobs in the last recession and then find other jobs after long job searches, I know if the worst happens I'll find something else. It may not be easy, but I know I'll be successful."

Let older kids know what you are doing to protect your job. Tell them, for example, if you are taking on extra or high-profile assignments.

This will not only provide a greater sense of security but will teach valuable lessons about the importance of actively managing one's career and responding adaptively to adversity.

If you do lose your job, show them how you are being pro-active in finding another one; for instance, by reigniting your network, so that you are better positioned for a softer landing.

No arguments about money

When you're feeling insecure about your job, it's natural to worry about money, and natural for emotions to run high.

Unfortunately, this often leads to more arguments about money with your partner. Remember, the kids are listening.

The effect of overhearing such fights on kids' sense of stability is profound. They often jump to conclusions that their parents are going to get divorced, or they'll lose their home.

If you and your partner have different views on savings or expenditures, discuss them rationally - and out of the range of kids. And make sure you aren't using money as a proxy for other issues.

Enjoy your kids

When I researched my recent book, Dish, many women I interviewed said they were left with one lingering regret: They had no memories of certain periods of their children's lives. These were times in which they were so anxious about their work they had no emotional space, not to mention time, to interact with their kids.

Anxiety will not make your work insecurities go away. The best way to cope is to know that you are managing your job, or job search, as intelligently as you can.

And that's what you need to convey to your children. After all, they shouldn't pay the short- or long-term emotional price for the challenges of work during an economic downturn.