How to explain a job loss to kids who learn and think differently

By The Understood Team

Understanding a job loss is difficult for many kids. It’s even harder for kids who learn and think differently and struggle with certain skills. 

Kids who have trouble with language or with processing information may have a tough time taking in and making sense of the news. Difficulty with flexible thinking and managing emotions can also get in the way. 

The key is to let kids know what’s going on without overwhelming them, according to Ellen Braaten, PhD, director of the Learning and Emotional Assessment Program at Massachusetts General Hospital.

“You want to answer their questions fully, while making sure they know you are in charge and responsible for their well-being,” she says.

How you explain that someone’s lost a job — the language you use and the way you talk about it — can make a big difference in how well your child understands and copes with the situation. Here are some tips.

Be clear and specific about the job loss.

You might think using vague language will soften the blow and be less upsetting than a straight-up “I lost my job today.” Instead, it may lead to confusion or mistrust.

Saying things like “They don’t need me at work right now” may be fine for preschoolers. But older kids may think you’re hiding something and get anxious. 

Kids who struggle with receptive language and who take comments literally may not get the message at all. Use clear, precise language to help avoid confusion. 

You might say something like this: “The company I worked for is going out of business, so I’ll be looking for another place to work.” Or “The place I work had to make changes and one was to eliminate my job. They might need me to come back in a month or two. But I’ll be looking for a new job right now.”

Invite questions.

Your child is bound to have questions. But kids who have trouble with expressive language or who have slow processing speed may not be able to ask them on the spot. Let your child know you’re happy to answer any questions any time. 

Before you do, though, make sure you understand the questions. You may think your child is asking one thing, when it’s really something else. 

Try repeating the question in your own words. You might say, “So you’re wondering what happens if we don’t have my income? Is that right?” or “What happens if I don’t find a new job? Here’s the plan….”

Be honest but reassuring.

A job loss creates a lot of uncertainty for kids. Kids who learn and think differently often struggle with anxiety, especially kids with ADHD and slow processing speed. It’s important that your child be able to trust that you’re being honest — and also feel that things will be OK.

Try to follow up your explanations about what’s going on with some reassurance. For example, you can say things like, “I don’t know how long it will take for me to get a new job, but you don’t need to worry. We’ll be OK.” 

If losing your job impacts your ability to provide food or keep your home, your child may be afraid. Think about the things you’re doing to keep your family safe, and then explain them to your child. Talk about what’s happening now, not in the future.

Also, tell your child that there are people and places that are there to help — teachers, houses of worship, food pantries, relatives. Many families are having the same difficulties, and you’re not alone.

Reset expectations.

Some kids have a hard time seeing different ways of doing things. Trouble with flexible thinking makes it hard for them to adapt to change. Be clear about how a job loss will impact everyday life so your child can process that information and adjust. But try not to be negative.

For example, you can say, “You won’t be able to take swim classes at the community pool for now. But let’s find a fun way to use that extra hour each week.” Or you could say, “You won’t be going to aftercare while I’m not working. You’ll take the bus home and I’ll have your snack ready and waiting for you.”

Talk about feelings.

No matter how much information they have, kids may still be upset or angry about a job loss. Kids who have trouble managing emotions may need extra help identifying and coping with feelings. Let your child know it’s OK to talk about them.

You might say, “I can see you’re angry about swim class. I understand that.” You can also share your own feelings, as long as you’re calm about it. “Sometimes I feel angry about having to give things up, too. But I know we’ll go back to them once I’m working again.”

Take action to help kids cope.

With a job loss in the family, kids may feel helpless. Take steps to give your child a sense of control. Explain the need to save money, for example, and talk about ways your child can help out or things you can do as a family to get through this together. 

Maybe your child can get a babysitting job so you can save on allowance money. Or you can start a vegetable garden as a family. Help your child see different ways to solve a problem by asking, “What kinds of things could we cut back on or change as a family?” 

The more kids understand about a job loss, the better able they’ll be to draw on strengths and cope with setbacks. Discover ways to help build resilience in your child. And download some growth-mindset activities.

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    About the author

    About the author

    The Understood Team is made up of passionate writers and editors. Many of them have kids who learn and think differently.

    Reviewed by

    Reviewed by

    Ellen Braaten, PhD is the director of LEAP at Massachusetts General Hospital.