Talking to Your Children about the Economy

Dear Sharon,

Do you have suggestions on how to handle talking to your children about the economy, when they ask for things you can’t provide? I have a 7, 10 and 12 year old and I don’t want them to feel worried but at the same time I feel they need to understand what our reality is. It’s tough for them and for us as well and I could use some help.


Dear Susan,

Most if not all parents are answering your question right now; I wish there were easy answers.

Unfortunately this year many Moms and Dads are having to tell their children that they will not be able to spend as much money as they have in the past. Children, like many adults, could easily feel that they “really, really need” many things especially if they have been able to buy them before. Saying no to a child who wants something has always been a difficult part of parenting but the current economy is forcing parents to say no even more than usual. Here are some things to remember as you try and help your children understand what is happening in your family right now.

1. Most children get upset when they are told no to something they really want. As hard as it is to listen to a child’s disappointments there are many times in a child’s life that parents need to say no. If a family’s economic security and long term well being depend on cutting back expenses then children will have to be told no and parents may have to listen to some frustration and disappointment. (Those reactions are a natural part of growing up even if they are painful for Mom or Dad to hear.)

2.It is good to try and explain why money is less available but explaining a failing economy to a child is as difficult as many sensitive topics that surface regularly in family life. When speaking to parents who are asking your question, I suggest that they explain the truth from their perspective and do so in as short a talk as possible. I suggest a brief explanation because adults can “lecture” and children, especially teens and pre-teens, often “tune out” that form of communication. When Mom or Dad is done with their relatively brief overview it is usually helpful to set time aside for their child to ask questions. Not all children want to ask questions but being offered the opportunity to do so can help them feel respected, included and ultimately more able to understand the complex issues in front of them. Some young people can pose questions and when they do it can help parents know more about what might be helpful to explain. Questions about money can of course be difficult to answer but most children sincerely appreciate parental efforts to respond and Mom or Dad can always go back and add thoughts later if needed.

3.Discussions about money, buying things and the overall economy are not simple for adults or children. It is probably useful to remember that this talk is likely to be take place more than once.

4.Of course as with all the challenges of parenting things will go better if the parent is relaxed and confident during the discussion. If Mom or Dad is feeling worried about money or guilty about not doing better by their children the talk will most likely leave a child feeling insecure and worried as well. It can help to pick a “good time” when things are relatively calm and there is plenty of opportunity to have as long a talk as needed. Ideally there would be some time to“hang out” before and after the discussion as well. “Hang out” time can give everyone a chance to process and/or alter what has been said. Even though I know there is rarely a “good time” in the middle of the pressures of everyday family life, rushing through complicated topics is rarely productive in the long run.

5. It can help to keep in mind that families exist in an extremely commercial society, where possessions are sometimes valued more than relationships. In the “hub-bub” of today’s world time to “just be” with each other is often a hard to find. Harsh economic realities can get people “back to basics” as they think about their family’s long term happiness. Anyone who has read my column before knows that I believe that relaxed, loving, fun times between parent and child are sone of the key ingredients in the development of a child’s self esteem and provide some of the best building blocks for a sound future. When you have to explain to your children that they can no longer buy something, you might substitute that object with some loving time with YOU! You could bake cookies, make art, play music, watch a fun DVD, or play a video game together. You could even give your child a really special gift – a whole day that you take off from work to spend some time with Mom or Dad. In my humble opinion such moments can be the best way to relieve the worry and stress that your family and so many others are confronting today.