How Do We Help Our Children Prepare for a Move?
Question: We are a family of four, with a 4-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son. I have had a job transfer, and we will be moving to Minnesota in several months. How can we help our children with the move?
Answer: In today’s world, approximately 20 percent of families move each year. From the math, it is obvious that many families deal with your question, some more than once. There are, indeed, a number of ways you can help your children prepare for this change.
Stress of moving
Moves are stressful — for everyone. Change is stressful, and so much is changing when you move. You are probably overwhelmed with moving details. There are also many goodbyes, and these will be difficult. Other worries and responsibilities will weigh on you. Packing time and particularly the moving period can be especially stressful.
Children do well when their parents are doing well. So, the most helpful thing you can do to assist your children is to do whatever you can to keep yourself as balanced as possible. You know what will work for you.
Children rely on familiarity and routines to feel secure. Because so much will change for your children — starting even before you leave town — try to keep things as stable and familiar as possible.
Maintain routines. Do not introduce anything new that you can avoid, such as trips and unfamiliar or exciting visitors.
Moving involves many losses — the loss of relationships, physical spaces and routines. Of course there are many gains, but they are less known, less tangible and take time to come to fruition.
Children understand situations in which they give up one thing to get another. They confront this challenge every day, because growing up involves giving up the pleasures of being younger for the greater rewards of independence, competence and deeper relationships.
Your children’s losses will differ. Your 4-year-old may be particularly concerned with loss of routines and physical spaces, and your 7-year-old may be more focused on friendships. But they will share these concerns as well.
Children also differ in what matters to them. We recommend that you acknowledge the extent of the loss for each child and keep the conversations active so they feel your permission to share their reactions.
Encourage active participation
Your children did not decide to move. Most likely they would prefer to stay put. Although you will surely explain that Mommy and Daddy have decided that the move is the best thing for your family, it is not their choice, they are affected profoundly, and they may experience feelings of powerlessness.
Because everyone faces such times of powerlessness, moving provides an opportunity to build mental muscles around a challenging situation that they will face again. The most effective way to deal with situations we cannot control is to find aspects of the situation in which we can provide active input.
Children can feel active through knowing more and doing more. You can help your children by providing as much information as you can about the move and that they are capable of understanding. Explain the moving process, including the details of packing, and show pictures or videos of their new environment, especially if you know where you will be living and where they will go to school.
If possible, have your children visit the new location, especially the school. Meeting new friendly people will reassure them.
Involve them in the packing and moving process and help them choose items to keep with them when their other possessions are packed. Help your children plan the decorating and organizing of their new room.
They may want to have some special goodbye times with friends, perhaps even a party. Or they may have other ideas.
There are many books available about moving, and reading them together will provide children with understanding and encouragement to voice their questions and desires.
Children often face complicating factors around moves. Moving away from one of their parents is a common one seen at the Lucy Daniels Center. These situations pose highly individualized challenges, and parental sensitivity regarding the child’s loss is particularly important in these situations.
Although your children will grow in their capacity for relationships through your support for their painful losses, they need your help to keep in mind that there are new relationships and pleasures ahead. Emphasize that they will have kind teachers and make new friends. Remind them of their past successes with teachers and friends.
Explain all the things that will not change in the new home. Discuss future plans for visiting the area.
Your children are likely to need more time and attention. They probably will gravitate to emotional positions that provide comfort from less complicated times — what we call regression. They may rely upon personality traits that give them comfort but make life difficult for others, such as clinging and stubbornness.
We recommend a balanced approach to this regression: Accept it at first, gradually put in place expectations that start to raise the bar back to where it was before the regression and, most importantly, identify with your children that they are expressing their worries about the move through the particular behavior. Recognizing that the behavior is communication, and encouraging your children to find words rather than behavior to communicate, will enable them to turn regression into growth.
What is best for the family may not necessarily be best for a particular child. Sometimes changes provide lessons in giving something up to get something better. Sometimes they provide lessons in learning to accept something as the way it has to be. Either way, with your help your children can grow emotionally, and your family can grow in closeness for having successfully dealt personally and collectively with a complex challenge.
To submit a question about children’s emotional development and behavior, send an e-mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org with Ask Lucy Daniels in the subject line.
The Lucy Daniels Center for Early Childhood in Cary is a private, nonprofit agency that promotes the healthy emotional well-being of children and their families.