If your family is having trouble with money, it can be tough to decide when and how to talk to your kids about the problem. You know they’re noticing that you reach for the no name cereal instead of the branded ones, and you know they feel the impact of fewer nights out and expensive family activities. But just when should you let your kids in on the fact that money is tight? And how do you even go about talking to them about the problems?
You Know Your Kids Best
One thing experts at agree on is consistently talking to kids about family money problems but to keep everything age appropriate, however no one can actually tell you what counts as age appropriate for your kids. Some six year olds are mature enough to have relatively complex conversations about daddy’s job hunt, while some ten year olds might be better off knowing fewer details about the family’s financial situation. When you decide when and how to talk to your kids, and how much detail to give them, be sure you take into account their overall maturity, their understanding of money in general, and how they react to stress. Kids who are prone to worrying should be shielded more from stressful events that those who are more even-keel and happy-go-lucky.
Always Prepare Kids for Major Transitions
While you may decide not to let on that your family is going through financial crisis for many different reasons, it’s never a good idea to leave kids unprepared for major transitions. Whether you have to move in order to take a new job, sell your home to downsize, or simply scale back dramatically on Christmas and birthday gifts, it’s unwise and unfair not to prepare your kids. Even very young children will wonder what’s going on when you’re packing up boxes to move, and springing a move on elementary-aged kids at the last minute can cause some serious problems. So if you’re on the brink of a major transition because of your financial situation, you need to take steps to talk to your kids, no matter how old they are or how you feel about the conversation.
The Full Truth and Nothing But the Truth? Maybe Not
Talking to kids about your financial situation may be the best option, especially if they start noticing changes and asking questions, but you don’t necessarily need to give kids the entire truth or all the details. This is certainly not to say that you should lie to your kids. They’re more perceptive than we adults give them credit for, so even preschoolers will be able to tell if mommy is lying when she says that everything is “just fine.” But you also don’t need to tell your preschooler – or any of your kids, really – that you’re just trying to get through the week coasting on the fumes of your last paycheck.
Before you sit down to talk to your kids, talk with your spouse or partner – or, if you’re a single parent, another adult that you trust – about what you should tell the kids. Deciding in advance how to answer questions that will come up and which details to give your children will make the conversation with your kids easier when you’re ready to talk with them.
It you have children of widely varying ages, you may want to have separate conversations with the kids, letting the older kids in on a little more detail about your situation. However, make it clear to older children that they aren’t to talk to their younger siblings about what you’ve said, and that if they have any more questions or concerns, they can just talk to you about them. Regardless of how old your children are, you must find a way as the parent to balance the truth and their potential anxiety. There’s no need to tell kids that you might lose your house unless the possibility of foreclosure is imminent, for example. Having these conversations is certainly tough, but planning ahead can make it much easier on you and your kids.
Lead by Example
The biggest thing you can do for your kids is to keep your own stress and worry in check. Even if you’re afraid that you can’t make the next mortgage payment, it’s important that you don’t let your children see you making bad choices about how to handle stress – overeating, drinking, yelling, etc. Kids will pick up on your stress, and it can make them anxious. Plus, you’re teaching them right now how to deal with stress in their own lives, so make sure you’re teaching them the right coping mechanisms.
The best thing you can do is to act like the new financial situation you’re in is normal. It might, after all, be your family’s “new normal.” For instance, one New York Times article suggests that parents simply tell their kids that Christmas gifts are getting cut back a little because the family needs to be smarter about money management. By staying calm and answering questions calmly, you’ll make sure your kids stay calm, too.
And remember, kids are extraordinarily perceptive about what’s going on when you think they aren’t looking. Confine detailed conversations about your finances to after bedtime, if possible, so that kids won’t accidentally overhear.
Also, lead by example by managing your finances as best you can during this difficult time. It’s better to cut back on grocery, household, and gift spending as much as you can than it is to run up huge debts buying items you don’t really need. For many families, times of financial crisis become times of more togetherness and fun than ever before. So remember to look on the bright side and focus on your family during these tough times.