Parent Fail: How to Talk to Kids About Your Own Setbacks

Mistakes -- and how parents handle them -- can provide a valuable opportunity for learning. A family setback handled well can help children learn that failure or disappointment isn't something to fear but, in fact, something both normal and surmountable.
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Joanna had known for months that her job was in jeopardy. As creative director of a well-read city magazine, she was under tremendous pressure to create magazine covers that sold well on the newsstand and sparked advertiser interest. And although she didn't believe the fault was entirely hers, sales for the last few months hadn't exactly skyrocketed. So when Joanna's boss let her know he'd be replacing her with someone else, she wasn't entirely surprised. She was, however terrified -- though not for the reasons related to money, career, or even personal pride. "The first thing I thought of was, 'What am I going to tell Max?'" she told me later. Max was Joanna's 9-year-old son.

When adults face disappointments, such as losing a job, having financial or legal issues, leaving a spouse (or being left), or some other personal setback, it's tempting to want to shield kids from worry and tell them nothing. Many parents might avoid telling kids out of shame or embarrassment; as Joanna said, "Aren't I supposed to be the one he can look up to?" But looking up to someone doesn't mean believing they are infallible, or immune to disappointments. What's more, kids are uncannily good at reading between the lines. They might not know what's happening, exactly, but they know something's happening -- and the uncertainty can be as scarey and anxiety provoking as the truth. Feeling like you're holding back information that's crucial to their lives can also give them reason to question their trust in you.

The upside is that mistakes -- and how parents handle them -- can provide a valuable opportunity for learning. Disappointments and difficulties are an inevitable and universal fact of life; helping kids both recognize this fact and the fact that life still goes on is an important lesson in resilience and what it looks like to support one another. A family setback handled well can help children learn that failure or disappointment isn't something to fear but, in fact, something both normal and surmountable.

At home, Joanna was straight with Max. "I told him that losing my job was unexpected but that Mommy's boss had decided to hire someone else," she said. "I let him know that it was normal to be nervous, but that I wasn't, and that I had a plan in place. And, mostly, that we'd be okay." As the weeks went on, Joanna let Max in on her job search and was a little more mindful of their spending but otherwise kept the family's routines consistent. And when she landed a new position at a design firm, she took Max out to dinner and ice cream. "I told him that I couldn't have made it through this time without his support," she said. "And I meant it."

A few strategies to keep in mind when talking to kids about adult setbacks:

Let them in -- and tell them the plan. If you're angry or scared about something that's going on, let them know. But, like in the case of Joanna and Max, also let them know what you're going to do about it and include them in the process of problem solving. At the same time don't give kids information they don't need or aren't requesting. "We don't have enough money to pay the mortgage this month" isn't something to share.

Encourage them to talk about their fears. If your child expresses worry, don't tell them everything's going to be okay and be done with it. Instead, engage them in conversations about what worries them and what you can do to help them feel better.

Reassure -- but don't sugarcoat. Optimism is important, but being overly positive can backfire. When Sarah and Matt realized that filing for bankruptcy meant they'd lose the house, they sat their three kids down. "We told them everything was going to be okay, but that what was happening wasn't good, and not what we wanted," Sarah said. "But we also told them about changes we'd already started to make as a family regarding spending, because that did affect them, too." And we let them know that we'd always have a place to live, thanks to Grandma and Papa, who'd agreed to let us move in for a while." Sarah and Matt also talked more with their kids about money, since the couple knew it was their own overspending that had gotten the family into trouble. "We used it as an opportunity to not only pare down, but talk to the kids about why, in the end, 'stuff' mattered less than family," Matt said. "We were also frank with them: This is happening because Mommy and Daddy spent more money than they made. We didn't try to shift the blame."

When Maria's husband, Leo, was pulled over for drinking and driving, Maria sat down 10-year-old Sam for an honest conversation. "I wanted to tell him how angry I was with Leo, but I knew that wasn't helpful," Maria remembered. "So instead I said, 'Daddy made a terrible mistake. We're very lucky no one was hurt. But just as you get into trouble when you do something wrong, so has he.' I was honest and factual." The message wasn't that Daddy is a bad person, but that Daddy made a bad choice. Added Maria, "I wanted Sam to know that his father was dealing with the consequences of a choice he made, and that everyone is accountable for their decisions."

Don't jump ahead. Cross bridges when you come to them. You can prepare kids for realities without taking them to the worst-case scenario. If Daddy faces legal trouble, don't say, "Daddy might have to go to jail." Instead, share on the information that's certain and let them know that if things don't work out there are other strategies you can use, that many possibilities exist for getting through.

Take care of yourself. The best way to teach kids that life goes on is to show them. If fighting or tense conversation increase between parents, have those arguments out of earshot of the kids; don't get angry or raise your voice in their presence. Be mindful of your lifestyle habits -- in times of stress, many people can turn to alcohol as a way to cope. And above all be consistent. Everyday changes can cause a child to feel anxious, so do your best to make the child's routine changes as little as possible. Don't go easier on rules or lower boundaries. Consistency is important, and reassuring, in good times as well as not-so-good times. Making life as predictable as possible will help kids deal with change -- and help you deal as well.

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