Each year, one in five American families moves to a new home. Some pack up and head for greener pastures, such as a job promotion, while others relocate in the wake of a dramatic change, such as divorce or job loss. Whatever the reason, moving to a new town can be challenging for all of you — but especially for little ones, who thrive on routine and may fear leaving their school and friends behind. Knowing how to talk to and include your child in the moving process right from the start can help him to handle this important phase in your lives.
Breaking the News
Speak with your child as soon as you know that your upcoming move is certain. While it’s natural to assume that keeping the news from your child will reduce his window of worry, the reality is that children, like all of us, need time to adjust to and process weighty information. Your child will likely pick up on a change in your attitude and behavior anyway, so it’s better to be straightforward. “Kids can sense when you’re keeping a secret,” explains Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D., a licensed psychologist and family counselor in Massachusetts. “If you keep your child in the dark, what he’ll imagine is happening may be worse than the reality.”
Before you break the news, come up with a plan so that you can answer the questions your child will ask. Try to determine which school he will attend and the kinds of classes and activities it offers, for example. Gather a collection of websites you can explore together to learn more about your new school and town, including nearby museums, parks, and playgrounds that your child can look forward to visiting. Know the date you will be moving so that you can begin to plan packing and saying goodbyes. If possible, arrange to leave after the end of a school year to make the transition easier. Once you’re set, call a family meeting to explain to your child the general steps of your move.
Children under 8 are less attached to people, such as friends, but very attached to places and routines. For this reason, it’s important to stick to regular schedules as much as possible before, during, and after the move. But if your child is between the ages of 8 and 12, be prepared for him to react with anger, sadness, and tons of questions. Kids this age have an increased sense of independence, which leads to concern about performance in school. They also have stronger, longer-lasting friendships than they did just a year or two ago. Moving puts these hard-won ties in jeopardy. Your child may express outrage with questions like, “How could you do this to me?” or “Why are you so unfair?”
Respond calmly with honesty, understanding, and firmness. Share your own feelings about the move, and talk about the people and places you will all miss. Avoid painting an overly rosy picture of your new digs so that you can help your child avoid disappointing surprises. Offer her an appropriate way to process her feelings. You might give her a journal and ask her to express herself in writing or by drawing pictures about the move — whether her feelings are positive or negative. “Some children may feel guilty about leaving their house behind, as if they might be hurting its feelings,” explains Kimberly Daniels, a Connecticut elementary school guidance counselor and child development expert. “It’s important to reassure your child that the house you’re leaving will be well cared for by the next family.”
Make sure your child understands that all of her belongings are moving with you. If your family is temporarily dividing up — if one parent is moving first, for instance — be sure your child knows when everyone will be together again.
Give your child the power to make choices at appropriate moments. This allows him to feel more secure because it provides a sense of control and lets him know that his thoughts and feelings are respected. For instance, you might ask him to help you choose which household items to keep and which to get rid of at a tag sale. (Try not to insist that he toss anything that he may be clinging to for the sake of familiarity.) Put your child in charge of a special job. Perhaps he’s responsible for helping a younger sibling pack or for labeling and coloring boxes.
Focus on the positive aspects of your new home and neighborhood. Maybe the windows are bigger in the kitchen, so you’ll have more sunlight at breakfast, or the local library is within walking distance. Encourage your child to identify three things she’d like to do in the new place and make plans to do at least one of them. Ask your child to think about how she’d like to decorate her new bedroom.
Illustration Credit: Christopher Silas Neal