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How to talk to your kids about financial hardship

With millions of Americans out of work due to the coronavirus pandemic, more Americans than ever are depending on unemployment benefits, loan payment assistance, and forgiving landlords to get through the month. It may be years before the total financial cost is calculated, and the emotional tally may never be known.

How do you tell your kids that you don’t have enough money for necessities, much less anything extra? How do you share the truth without frightening them? Finally, is it possible to use this experience to help your children grow up into compassionate, balanced adults with a sense of what matters in life?

Should you tell your kids about financial hardship?

Tamara Stervinou taught special education for nearly 30 years, the last 25 in Kearney, Missouri. She says that children pick up on what’s going on around them. If you are stressed, chances are they know it. They don’t understand why you can’t sleep at night, so they jump to conclusions. What they imagine is often scarier than what is really going on. If you’re wondering how to talk to your kids about financial hardship, these tips will get you started:

  • Remain calm. “Staying calm is everything,” said Stervinou. “A child will innately think it’s their fault when you talk to them about money problems. Don’t put that on them.” Calmly explain the situation in a way that lets your kids know that you are in charge and you can handle it — whether you feel that way or not.
  • Follow their lead. Do not tell them more than they want to know. One child may feel fine after hearing a single answer, while another may want to ask several follow-up questions. Stervinou reminds us that this is a confusing time for children. “If there was a flood, kids would be able to see why they can’t go to school or Mom and Dad can’t go to work. They can’t see a virus, which makes this more confusing for them.”
  • Answer in an age-appropriate way. A seven-year-old has no interest in IRAs or what the economic downturn has done to your balance. He or she wants to know why they can’t have a new pair of shoes.
  • Keep it simple. Say something like, “Mom and Dad are not working right now because of the virus. We’re being careful with our checking account and will not be spending as much as we normally do.”
  • Offer a broad overview. Once you have told your kids that you are cutting back on spending, do not go into the weeds by offering them more details than they can absorb, and refrain from sharing your pandemic-related frustrations.
  • Do not “parentify” your children. Let them know finances are an adult issue. Their only job is to keep being great kids and to leave all other concerns to you.

What about children with special needs?

Whether your child has a disability, behavioral issues, or deals with anxiety, discussing financial hardship requires sensitivity. Wait to have the conversation until you can focus fully on your child. In addition, you should:

  • Consider your child’s capacity for accepting bad news. Before you say anything, think about how you will comfort and calm your child if they have an outburst. Remember, they are having a normal reaction to an atypical situation. Your job is to help them draw on the coping skills they have learned.
  • Do not over-share. As you would with any child, tell them just enough to answer their questions without adding to their anxiety or frustration.
  • Keep it simple. Stervinou says that most kids, regardless of abilities, understand what a grocery store is. Let them know that for the time being, you are trying to protect your family and other people by making trips to the grocery store — and only the grocery store — only when it’s absolutely necessary.
  • Expect outbursts. It’s only human for a kid to lash out when he or she is frustrated and/or afraid. “Adults with no disabilities act out. It’s a given that kids are going to do something to show their frustration,” Stervinou said.

It would be a lie to say that we can put COVID-19 behind us. In fact, many of us will always remember 2020 as the year a pandemic shut down America. Our children will remember it as well. What is it that you want your kids to recall when they look back on this time? What lessons do you hope they carry with them?

Some of the most meaningful conversations we have are while we’re emptying the dishwasher or folding towels. As you move through the upcoming days with your kids, casually introduce questions like these:

  • What do you think we will learn from this experience? Your children’s great- grandparents (or great-great-grandparents) had The Great Depression to teach them the value of living below their means and how to prioritize anemergency fund. As you discuss finances with your kids, talk about the wisdom of saving money, how important it is to delay gratification, and the best way to use credit. Finally, ask them about the lessons they think they will take from the experience.
  • What means the most to you? At the end of life, few of us will brag about the stuff we own. We will, however, be proud of the relationships we built. Now is a great time to talk to your children about what matters and what doesn’t, to help them understand that relationships and experiences trump new toys and gadgets every time.
  • How can we have fun without spending money? When financial consultant Winnie Sun wanted to teach her three young sons about having fun on a budget, she transformed the dining room table into a ping pong table. Sun pulled out old table tennis paddles and encouraged one of her sons to build a “net” using Legos. She also ordered seeds so the boys could plant and care for a garden in buckets in the backyard. Sun says that when her sons look back on 2020 and their shelter-at-home experience, she wants them to remember how much fun they had without spending a dime.
  • Would you like to help with the family budget? Invite older children to take part in family budget meetings. They already know that times are tough, but having a voice regarding the family budget can give older kids a greater sense of control, teach themhow to budget, and help them see that things will eventually get better.
Joseph Tanner

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