I tell my daughters if I'm upset that a student turned in yet another late paper ("She'll learn when she loses a job in real life!") or texts that she is sick the morning a big assignment is due ("Of course she isn't feeling well! She stayed up all night!").
Should I keep my job woes and frustrations to myself? Or is it OK to share them, just as I share my job highlights? ("My student just won a big award for her story on people who think they are vampires!")
I checked in with two of my favorite experts for advice about just how much parents, like me, should share their job stress with their kids:
Think back to what your parents told you. What did you like – or not like – hearing? Nashua, N.H., psychologist Carl Hindy (co-author of If This Is Love, Why Do I Feel So Insecure?) remembers his dad talking about his co-workers and his job at the dinner table. "I think I learned a lot from it: about personalities, and work, and expressing concerns and raising them appropriately, of listening, of a husband and wife being supportive," he says. "I suppose it was the more modern day version of the hunter-gatherer, or warrior, coming home to share with his family — to have the comfort of his wife and the attentive learning of the young warriors to be!"
Remember your status as a role model. Hindy remembers his dad feeling stressed –and wanting to get ahead ethically. "He did not instill anxiety in my brother and me, or give us reason to worry that he'd be jobless and we'd all be in trouble," he says. He didn't make them feel fearful about their future, and he didn't confide in them inappropriately. "I'm sure he elaborated the stories in different ways later, with my mother, when my brother and I weren't in earshot," says Hindy. "I think he did well to keep separate an awareness of his need to be a role model, a confidence-inspiring head of household, in front of us."
Don't make your kids anxious. Sure, you want empathy. But don't go overboard. "It's important to not allow your own worries to overflow, resulting in instilling anxiety in the children," says Hindy. "You do not want to overflow your own passing feelings of helplessness or hopelessness."
Know that your job may be a mystery to your kids. "In the old days, children could see the work the parent performed with their own eyes—the work of a parent who farmed or sold dry goods or worked on the railroad was fairly visable to his offspring," says child psychiatrist Elizabeth Berger, author of Raising Kids with Character. "Today, the kind of work that parents do is often quite mysterious to children, and the frustrations and joys of this work are often mysterious as well."
Explain your grumpy mood. "If a parent is aware that problems at work are having a strong effect on his or her mood, it is good to explain that the parent is experiencing something at work that is upsetting—but that the parent understands that this mood it will pass and that it is not the child's problem and certainly not the child's fault," says Berger. "Even young children can be quite sensitive to a parent's mood—asking, 'Are you unhappy, mommy?' Children are talented mind-readers, and it is not constructive to deny the validity of the child's insight at these times. Mommy can say, 'You are right that I am worried about a problem at work, but I can handle it! It will be OK. I am sorry if I had a frown—I was certainly not frowning at you!'"
Share some of your frustrations. "All parents shield their children from grown-up problems as far as possible, and do not worry their children with the endless list of everyday stresses and anxieties that they inevitably face as adults," says Berger. "But it is good that children gradually learn that grown-ups experience various frustrations at work too—just as children do at school. It is helpful for children to know that adults can feel annoyed and discouraged at times and yet put these feelings in perspective. A parent who says to a youngster in a calm and humorous way, 'I am so annoyed about my boss right now that I could just jump up and down screaming,' is showing her child that grown-ups can tolerate annoyance without actually jumping and screaming. She is passing along a bit of precious wisdom about self-management. One can discuss primitive feelings without behaving in a primitive fashion; this is an important insight which parents can model for their offspring — being both honest and self-disciplined at the same time."
Don't unnecessarily alarm your kids. "The details of questions which raise a parent's anxiety ('Will I get fired? Is that new boss going to be a nightmare?') probably should be postponed until there is some clarity about the outcome," says Berger. "Naturally, many aspects of the work situation will be too complex and too 'adult' for children to understand adequately. But a parent can certainly comment, in passing, about the parent's stresses without burdening a child unduly. The parent's goal is to reduce the situation to bite-sized portions that the child can comprehend, while maintaining an overall sense of cheer and security for the youngster."
Reassure your kids. "Work-related catastrophes are not uncommon," says Berger. "Many parents are laid off and many families are facing financial hardship. Secrecy is not wholesome, but parents will try to cushion these hard realities by explaining, 'Our family has big problems right now with jobs and money; but whatever will happen, we will stay together and we take more joy in our children than any worries we could possibly have.'"
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