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Wednesday, October 16, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Playing Out Their Fears Children Of Laid-Off Parents Often Show Signs Of Stress From Unemployment

By Donna St. George Knight-Ridder

Anne Pauker stood in the kitchen, dumbfounded as she eavesdropped on her children. The three girls were playing with their Barbie dolls in the family room, but the drama they were enacting was not the stuff of fairy tales.

Ken had been fired. It was time to hunt for a new job. Three Barbies busily counseled him. Think about a career change, they advised - no more office work. “You’re good at coloring. What about being an artist?” one of them offered.

Surprising as such adult preoccupations may seem in children as young as 6 years old, the tiny voices of the Pauker kids in Aberdeen, N.J., are merely echoes of the times.

In the last several years, both of their parents and a string of their neighbors have been bounced out of jobs. They’ve seen families worry about money and disappointed adults look for new work.

Like millions of other children of the 1990s, the Pauker girls have taken these realities into mind and heart.

They are the children of downsizing.

“They’ve heard it at the dinner table … and from just about everyone we know,” says Anne Pauker, 39, who lost her job as an insurance-company vice president last year and now is a management consultant. “But I was still stunned. When I was a child, it wasn’t even in my vocabulary.”

In 1996, America is deep in the throes of downsizing. Thirteen million people reported losing jobs at some point from 1991 to 1993. AT&T; alone plans to wipe out another 40,000 jobs.

And while once it was mostly blue-collar workers who got fired, now it’s highly educated, white-collar and managerial workers, too.

“Downsizing is now so pervasive that families have lost one of the certainties they always had, that mom or dad will always have a job,” says J. Lawrence Farmer, a New Jersey psychologist who counsels numerous AT&T; workers.

True to their history, children stand out for being resilient in the face of family adversity, and some of them, like the Paukers, offer surprisingly sophisticated reflections of the age of corporate cutting.

But in other families, kids find themselves with deeper troubles: losing closeness with their parents, taking the brunt of tensions at home, slipping in classes, skipping doctor’s visits because there’s no health-care coverage - even letting go of their aspirations or optimism.

“When kids see their Ph.D. parents out of a job, it gets harder and harder to believe in the concept that if you work hard and you get a good education, you will succeed,” says Jim Zwisler, a school counselor in Akron, Ohio, who has watched the stream of layoffs nationwide with great concern.

It’s almost inevitable that kids absorb some of the upheaval that surrounds them. After all, many parents are going through the ordeal of their lives - facing job insecurity after many years of a solid career, and fielding rejection letters instead of regular paychecks.

Job counselor Paul Bott says it’s so grim in Long Beach, Calif., where more than 30,000 jobs have vanished in the past six years at aerospace giant McDonnell Douglas Corp., that highly skilled engineers apply for 200 or 300 positions and have been rejected every time.

“Most of us have our identities in our work, and when we lose our jobs, part of our being is questioned,” says Bott, director of a center for unemployed workers at the Long Beach campus of California State University.

A parent’s sense of fear and failure trickles down.

“You go home and kick your dog, and if you don’t have a dog, you holler at your kids,” Bott says.

When the security of a job vanishes, many families begin a slow crash.

Parents bicker about money. They worry they’ll lose the house. If another job isn’t landed soon, they feel ashamed.

They stop wanting to see friends who will ask how it’s going. Their confidence wanes. They wonder if they’ll ever bounce back.

These couples get divorced at a rate 30 percent higher than the norm for their age, education and family background, says sociologist Paul Attewell of the Graduate School of City University of New York.

For children in the midst of such turmoil, downsizing can be “the most profound trauma” of middle-class life, says anthropologist Katherine S. Newman, who wrote the downsizing classic, “Falling from Grace.”

“It can mean the death of their family’s identity and their way of life,” she says.

It goes without saying that when parents are unemployed, children get less: no dance lessons, no bicycles, no family vacation. Some children feel ashamed of their new poverty and about not keeping up with friends.

But Farmer, the New Jersey psychologist, says: “Kids are not scarred by not getting $100 sneakers. They’re scarred when their parents become depressed and irritable or when they withdraw from them or when they begin to drink.”

That’s not uncommon when people lose their jobs.

At the Parents Anonymous hotline in Baltimore, Mindy Amor has seen calls increase from laid-off workers.

“They feel lousy about themselves, and so they’re more likely to be short-tempered, more likely to lash out,” she says.

In many families, there’s a fear the old prosperity may never return.

In 1994, a stunning 54 percent of workers displaced from 1991 to 1993 reported still being unemployed, or earning less than half of their old wages, according to an analysis of census statistics done by Attewell.

Increasingly, experts say, workers are taking two part-time jobs to piece together a living - and seeing their children less than ever.

That’s how it turned out for a 45-year-old construction manager in the Philadelphia suburbs. His daughters were 5 and 7 when he was laid off.

In the beginning, they delighted in having him at home.

Five years later, the man works two jobs - 85 hours a week - and commutes 25 hours a week, for a total income of $55,000, half his former salary. The family that once lived in a five-bedroom suburban home now rents a townhouse.

In Chicago, one laid-off financial executive put his family’s home up for sale. But again and again, the “For Sale” sign came down.

It turned out that their teenage son, who could not bear to move, was throwing it into the bushes, says outplacement executive John A. Challenger.

That’s the same sort of muted protest educators see in schools, where kids get disruptive or let their grades plummet, says Principal Terry Barber of Amistad Elementary School in Kennewick, Wash. His area has been through several waves of layoffs at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

Most of the time “kids are mirroring what they’re seeing at home,” says Barber. “If their parents don’t know how to manage it, then neither do they.”

In this time of mass firings, the workers taking especially hard hits are often those with kids. Single parents, for example. And workers with children under 5.

Jeanette Weston, 29, of Naperville, Ill., belongs to both groups. A single mother of three who lost her job several weeks ago, Weston says the scariest part is how bleak the market seems - and how close unemployment is to outright poverty.

Weston figures she and her three kids - 3, 5 and 12 - could last six months before they’d need to apply for government help. But by then, “who knows what the Republicans will do” to social programs, she says.

As a single mother, she says, not only is there no second paycheck to help buffer the blow of being fired, there’s not another adult to baby sit or to steady the family.

So far, her 12-year-old daughter, Ashley, seems most worried.

She wants to know why Weston, a college graduate who works with computers, hasn’t gotten a job yet. If the family will go on vacation this year. If her mother is depressed. And if not, why she seems to be less patient lately.

“If they didn’t have any work for her,” Ashley said in an interview, “I was wondering why they hired her in the first place.”

In the best case, families pull together in tough times and come out stronger in the end.

“The worst of times can be growth-producing,” says sociologist Glen H. Elder of the University of North Carolina, who has studied children of the Great Depression.

Many families hope that’s true.

MEMO: This article is from the Knight-Ridder Washington Bureau.

These 2 sidebars appeared with the story:

1. IMPACT ON FAMILY Displaced workers have 30 percent higher risk of getting divorced than employed workers with similar demographics.

2. TELL KIDS THE TRUTH ABOUT LOSS OF JOB WASHINGTON - There’s no hiding the truth from your kids. They’re going to notice Dad’s long face and the hushed conversation at the kitchen table. They’re going to overhear Mom on the telephone, confiding her worries. When you lose your job, your kids need straight talk. Experts say the best way to handle the family turmoil that comes with a parent’s being fired is to tell children the truth. Admit that tough times may lie ahead. But assure them that Mom and Dad will work hard to fix the problem. “Kids have radar,” says Evan Imber-Black, a New York psychiatrist. “If you don’t tell them, they sense it anyway … and might guess something else is wrong that’s even worse.” In these times of widespread corporate cutting, with 13 million workers reporting they lost their jobs from 1991 to 1993 alone, many parents are up against a hardship they have no history with: joblessness. “We’re at a point in family life where there aren’t any models for this,” says Imber-Black, president of the American Family Therapy Academy. “It’s been years since the Great Depression.” Even the experts, however, concede that getting fired is a difficult truth to navigate with kids: saying enough to keep them informed but being careful not to saddle them with distress and anxiety. It helps to recall other times the family has prevailed in times of crisis, experts say. Parents should ask kids to air their feelings and open up the conversation, not just once, but on a regular basis. In the end, candor is good not just for how children experience the hard times but for how parents get by as well: with a bear hug from a youngster, words of encouragement from a teenager, maybe even a tip on a job. In the Chicago suburbs, one fourth-grader who learned of his father’s plight told his class at school, asking other students to help find his dad a job. Soon, other parents were calling up with leads. “All of the sudden, his network grew by 35,” recalls Buzz Van Hecke, facilitator of the St. Michael’s Unemployed Shared Support Group in Orland Park, Ill. “He even got a couple of interviews out of it.” Donna St. George Knight-Ridder

This article is from the Knight-Ridder Washington Bureau.

These 2 sidebars appeared with the story:

1. IMPACT ON FAMILY Displaced workers have 30 percent higher risk of getting divorced than employed workers with similar demographics.

2. TELL KIDS THE TRUTH ABOUT LOSS OF JOB WASHINGTON - There’s no hiding the truth from your kids. They’re going to notice Dad’s long face and the hushed conversation at the kitchen table. They’re going to overhear Mom on the telephone, confiding her worries. When you lose your job, your kids need straight talk. Experts say the best way to handle the family turmoil that comes with a parent’s being fired is to tell children the truth. Admit that tough times may lie ahead. But assure them that Mom and Dad will work hard to fix the problem. “Kids have radar,” says Evan Imber-Black, a New York psychiatrist. “If you don’t tell them, they sense it anyway … and might guess something else is wrong that’s even worse.” In these times of widespread corporate cutting, with 13 million workers reporting they lost their jobs from 1991 to 1993 alone, many parents are up against a hardship they have no history with: joblessness. “We’re at a point in family life where there aren’t any models for this,” says Imber-Black, president of the American Family Therapy Academy. “It’s been years since the Great Depression.” Even the experts, however, concede that getting fired is a difficult truth to navigate with kids: saying enough to keep them informed but being careful not to saddle them with distress and anxiety. It helps to recall other times the family has prevailed in times of crisis, experts say. Parents should ask kids to air their feelings and open up the conversation, not just once, but on a regular basis. In the end, candor is good not just for how children experience the hard times but for how parents get by as well: with a bear hug from a youngster, words of encouragement from a teenager, maybe even a tip on a job. In the Chicago suburbs, one fourth-grader who learned of his father’s plight told his class at school, asking other students to help find his dad a job. Soon, other parents were calling up with leads. “All of the sudden, his network grew by 35,” recalls Buzz Van Hecke, facilitator of the St. Michael’s Unemployed Shared Support Group in Orland Park, Ill. “He even got a couple of interviews out of it.” Donna St. George Knight-Ridder

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