Shield or share? When financial trouble hits, how much should your children hear?

Posted by
Katia Hetter

When a parent gets laid off or finances get so tight that summer camp is out, how do we  handle that change in lifestyle with our kids? Whether you've lost a job or are heading back to work to help pay a higher mortgage, stressed out parents are struggling to explain the changes to their children.
Take a page from Stacey Spitz's playbook. Be positive, innovative and truthful -- to a point. The Livingston, N.J. mom lost her job in real estate human resources in March. Spitz, a divorced mother of two, pooled her unemployment, alimony, child support and savings to stave off worry while she looks for full-time work.
She told her children, ages 8 and 10, that their frequent trips to the local ice cream parlor and clothing stores would be less frequent. But she replaced those events with  home-based movie nights and clothing swaps so her kids could still have "new" clothes.

"I'm a big believer in positive energy and putting it out there, even at the worst times," she said. "If my kids saw me freaking out, they might be more concerned. But I know I'm going to be OK."

Focus on quality time. Although kids often say they "need" the latest video game or name-brand jeans, what they really need is to feel secure and loved. Watch a favorite TV show together or take an after-dinner bike ride. Invite their friends over for a pizza-making party. Even talking while folding laundry together can be quality time. "There should be lots of hugs and 'I love you's,' " says Julie Potischman, a Roseland, N.J. psychotherapist.

Reassure your children. If you need to cut back on spending but your job and home seem secure, explain that buying store brands instead of brand names allows the family to spend more on other things. If you have to replace vacations with "staycations,"  pack them with free local events so the children see that everyone can still have fun.If your children ask questions about your job search, answer them -- briefly. They need to know that you're working to get back on track but they don't need to know everything. "My kids want to know what I'm doing during the day, and I explain about networking and job websites and not burning bridges," Spitz says. If you're in danger of losing your job or your home, you can't necessarily promise your children that everything will stay the same. But you can promise them that you will always take care of them. Postpone any serious adult conversation until the little ones are asleep.

Stay cool. Even babies and toddlers pick up on stress so keep a positive attitude. Brooklyn mom Susan Menk lost her job as creative director at an architecture and interior design firm in January. She and her husband had to postpone pre-school and cut most of the babysitter's hours. Buying a home is on hold. But she hides her stress from her son and focuses on art projects and taking him to sing-a-longs and other free events. "He likes that I'm here, and I'm enjoying getting to know him more and bonding with him, " she says.

It's OK to say no. Whether you need to cut back now or not, it's a good time to teach your children that they can't have every toy they want, says Potischman, who is already talking to her children, ages 2 and 4, about limits and saving.

Show them how to save their allowance and gift money for things they want. Maybe your children will catch the entrepreneurial bug, as Spitz's 8-year-old daughter and a friend did on a recent hot spring day. They ran a lemonade stand and each made $10 after expenses.

Make compromises.  Local community centers and the YMCA often offer affordable day camp options. If the travel costs aren't too expensive, Grandma and Grandpa or another relative might take the kids for a "summer camp" week. Or organize a homemade summer camp with other parents. Each parent can coordinate a day of affordable entertainment at the local community pool or other fun spot. (Look at our Mid-Winter Break story for ideas) Your group might even consider hiring responsible teenagers or college students in your area to help lead your  camp

 If mom needs a paycheck. If you have to return to work, make it sound like an opportunity. Remind them that "Mommy is a very talented [fill in the blank] who is excited about helping other people," Potischman says. Even if the work doesn't excite you, teach them to respect work that allows you to support your family. Spend quality time with your children so they can adjust to you working outside the home.

Reach out for help. Like Spitz, you can organize clothing swaps in your neighborhood and lean on your mother and friends for support. Participate in neighborhood softball games, bring-your-own-dogs grilling parties and babysitting exchanges. And if you need work, don't be shy. Spread the word among your family, friends, religious leaders, neighbors and social networking websites. And reach out to other adults for support, too. "Parents need to work together at facing their fears and insecurities as adults without projecting them onto their children," says Potischman.

When your children are adults, they might remember the summer their parents cut back on expenses, but if you do it right, they'll recall how you managed the crisis by having inexpensive fun while making them feel loved and secure. And when the next financial downturn occurs, they'll be able to teach their children the same lessons.

Julie Potischman is a licensed psychotherapist at Roseland Psychotherapy Associates in Roseland, N.J. She's also the resident psychotherapist at, a website designed to help moms who want or need to return to the work force.

Brooklyn-based journalist Katia Hetter helps teens tell their stories at Youth Communication ( She has also written for The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly,, Newsday and U.S. News & World Report.