Picture this. A group of preschoolers is sitting in a circle for story time at a day-care center. The teacher is reading them a paperback called "My Dad Lost His Job." On another day, the storybook is "Mom Doesn't Work There Anymore."
A sign of the times, these books are one way parents and day-care providers can ease family tensions and help children understand when Mom or Dad is a victim of downsizing.
Mary Kalifon, a child development specialist and director of the parent-child resource service at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, wrote the books when Cedars-Sinai reduced its staff in 1992.
"I wanted to deal with the reality of the situation, but also give hope and reassurance for the future," she says.
The books have been an effective tool in many employer-supported day-care facilities around Los Angeles. At the Discovery Time Children's Center and Preschool in Alhambra, teachers used the books to prepare children whose parents faced the possibility of losing their jobs in the recent Los Angeles County cutbacks.
"There was open talk at circle time, which helped them to sort out and think about the situation," says Hilarie Dyson, director of the center. Fortunately, the Discovery Time parents were spared layoffs.
Kalifon believes talking openly with children and encouraging them to role play is the healthiest way for them to understand the circumstances. Children sense when things are shifting, she says. "They pick up on your fear."
Taking care of yourself should become your first priority, says David Winch, a counselor with Work/Family Directions, a Boston, Mass., consulting firm that offers services to corporations nationwide in assisting employees to balance work-family issues.
"Parents need to gain the strength to regroup, revamp and retrain if necessary. Children need to know that even though their parents are experiencing some tough times, they are still in control."
"What screws kids up is when they feel the tension around them and their gut tells them something is wrong, but Mom and Dad are saying everything is all right," says Dr. Mark Goulston, a Santa Monica psychiatrist who has counseled many displaced workers.
How much should parents share with their children? Experts say what's important is not to make them feel responsible or guilty for your situation if you lose your job. Kalifon says regression is a common reaction to such family turmoil. Children can also experience difficulties sleeping or may "act out" their feelings with negative behaviors.
"Assure the child it is not their problem and they are loved. Children are not frightened by the material things you take away from them, but by your panic," says Bill Garcia, deputy regional administrator of L.A. County's Department of Children and Family Services.
"Toddlers especially rely on routine and consistency," Kalifon says. "Making their lives as normal as possible will make them feel safe."
Janice Buente, 43, has succeeded in disturbing her child's life very little since her layoff last September from USC University Hospital. Her 5-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, continues after-school care, while Buente looks for a job.
"Even though we explained to her that Mommy doesn't work at the hospital anymore, life hasn't changed that much for her. We have cut back on things for us, but not on the things she needs," Buente says.
Alritta Sanders, 38, of Long Beach found her Rock of Gibraltar in her three teen-age sons when she lost her job at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in May.
"They were cautious to see how I would react to the layoff. We really had to work at it together and they helped whenever they could," she says. "We cut back on everything."
Sanders has been at her new job just more than two weeks now. She says even though the family is gaining back its financial stability, her sons feel they learned something about discipline from the situation.
Keeping perspective is hard to do, Goulston says. He suggests families keep a calendar and rate the days as good or bad. It will help to show that good days follow bad ones, he says. If the family must cut back, do it fairly, so there is a sense that everyone is sacrificing equally.
Most important, experts say, is that parents need to express hope for the future. Times of crisis can be a learning experience for the entire family, Winch says.
"As long as parents don't overload children with responsibilities, it's an opportunity for families to prioritize what's really important to them."
In an unemployment situation, you are still your child's role model, Goulston says. "Your children will learn to deal with their own problems by watching how you deal with yours."