In today’s world, approximately 20 percent of families move each year. There area number of ways that parents who are embarking on this adventure can help their children prepare for this change.
Stress of moving: Change is stressful, and so much is changing when a family moves. Parents are likely overwhelmed with moving details. There are also many goodbyes, and these are often difficult. Other worries and responsibilities will weigh on parents. 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 that parents can do to assist their children is to do whatever they can to keep themselves as balanced as possible. Parents know what will work for them.
Maintain order: Children rely on familiarity and routines to feel secure. Because so much will change children during a move – starting even before they leave town — it is helpful for parents to keep things as stable and familiar as possible. Maintaining routines helps. We advise parents not to introduce anything new they can avoid, such as trips and unfamiliar or exciting visitors.
Face losses: Moving also involves losses — the loss of relationships, physical spaces and routines. Of course there are also many gains, but they are often not 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.
Children’s losses will differ. For example, a 4-year-old may be particularly concerned with loss of routines and physical spaces, and a 7-year-old may be more focused on friendships. But children of different ages will share these concerns as well. Children also differ in what matters to them. We recommend that parents acknowledge the extent of the loss for each of their children and keep the conversations active so children feel their parents’ permission to share their reactions.
Encourage active participation: Although parents generally explain that Mommy and Daddy have decided that the move is the best thing for the whole family, it is still not the child’s choice, and since they are affected profoundly, 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 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. Parents can help their children by providing as much about the move as possible, information they are capable of understanding. It is helpful to explain the moving process, including the details of packing. It can also be helpful to show children videos of their new environment, especially if parents know where they will be living and where they will go to school.
If possible, parents can bring their children to visit the new location, especially the school. Meeting new friendly people will reassure them. Involving them in the packing and moving process and helping them choose items to keep with them when their other possessions are packed is another important way of maintaining children’s activity. Parents can help their children plan the decorating and organizing of their new room. Children may want to have special goodbye times with friends, perhaps even a party. Be open to hearing all their ideas. There are many books available about moving, and parents and children reading them together will provide children with understanding and encourage them to voice their questions and desires.
Complicated moves: Children often face complicating factors around moves. Moving away from one of parent is a common situation, one which poses highly individualized challenges. Parental sensitivity regarding the child’s loss is particularly important in these situations.
Growth ahead: Although children will grow in their capacity for relationships through parental support for their painful losses, they also need parents’ help to keep in mind that there are new relationships and pleasures ahead. Parents should emphasize they will have kind teachers and make new friends, and remind them of their past successes with teachers and friends. Parents can also explain all the things that will not change in the new home, and discuss future plans for visiting the area.
Expect regression: Children are likely to need more time and attention around the times of a move. They may will 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 clinginess and stubbornness. We recommend a balanced approach to this regression: Parents should 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 for their children that they are expressing their worries about the move through the particular behavior. Recognizing the behavior as communication, and encouraging children to find words rather than behavior to communicate, will enable them to turn regression into growth.
Sometimes change provides lessons in giving something up to get something better. Sometimes change provides lessons in learning to accept something as the way it has to be. Either way, with parental help, children can grow emotionally, and a family can grow in closeness for having successfully dealt personally and collectively with a complex challenge.