Each year, one out of five American families moves. While moving can be an exciting adventure for families as they look forward to new places, friends, and neighbors, it can also cause a variety of unwelcome emotions and stress. Children often have the most difficulty understanding the sudden disruption of their "most secure environment", their home and, therefore, special care needs to be taken in helping them adjust to this big change. Stress-related behaviors such as aggression, loss of appetite, regression to less mature behaviors, depression, and withdrawal are not uncommon in children experiencing a move.
Children are quick to mirror the emotions of the adults around them. Therefore, it is important that parents exhibit an enthusiastic and positive attitude about the move. If children sense that their parents are worried or not happy, they will dread the move and suffer undo stress.
It is also important to recognize that there is an aspect of "grief" associated with relocating the family home. No matter how eager you are to move, there will be places, things, and people you will miss (and perhaps never see again). When a move is brought about by death, divorce, or a job loss, the sense of loss and sadness is even more acute. Sometimes, the excitement of moving combined with the simultaneous sense of loss produces a see-saw of emotional ups and downs.
Moving is a challenging and difficult experience for a family, especially for children. It is natural, therefore, for parents to be concerned about the effect of the move. Parents often wish to help ease the transition for their children and make moving a positive experience. When faced with a move, it is important to remember that reactions from children will vary depending on their personality and developmental age. The personality of the child is important because it influences the time a child may take to adjust to the move. Some children are naturally outgoing and will be able to make friends immediately while some other children may take months.
Some aspects of the child's personality may tend to get more pronounced. For instance, if your child tends to worry and get nervous, you are likely to see more of this behavior until the child begins to feel more comfortable in the new surroundings. Roller coaster emotions are not uncommon. One day your child may be thrilled and excited, then blue and depressed the next.
Typical Behavior - By Age
The amount of stress that children experience when moving to a new community is directly proportional to the "depth of their roots" in the community they are leaving. In general, the older the child, the deeper the roots and the greater the stress. The following are brief descriptions of typical behaviors of children in four different age brackets and what you can do to ease their trauma.
The Infant or Toddler
Generally, infants and toddlers make the transition quite well. They may, however, pick up on your anxiety and stress level, and seem particularly fussy and demanding in the few weeks before and immediately after your move. They are experiencing a sense of loss and are confused as to how to handle it. Older toddlers who have just begun to understand a few basic household rules like "Don't climb on the counter tops or scribble on the wall" may need to relearn the rules all over again in the new house.
What you can do
Your time and attention are especially important now. Remember to take a break during the rush to hold or play with your child. Be sure to keep any security objects such as a favorite teddy bear or blanket close by. Heaven help the parent who absent-mindedly packs a favorite object away! Keep your routine as normal as possible. Regular eating and nap times are important.
Often, preschoolers will express a great deal of excitement over a move, but may not really understand everything that is going on. The details of moving inevitably frustrate parents, and preschoolers tend to think that the chaos and frustration may somehow be their fault.
Preschoolers also find it hard to understand what will go with them and what will stay behind. They may not realize that you are taking furniture and toys with you, and often develop great fears for their personal belongings and toys. Also, they may not realize that close friends and neighbors will not make the move.
What you can do
Try to pack children's things last and include your preschooler in on the packing process. Do not assume that your child understands the process of moving. Explain the move to your child and give reasons for the way you are doing things. There are many excellent children's books on moving. Take the time to read one or two with your child to help him understand the moving process. As with infants and toddlers, keep your routine as normal and as predictable as possible.
The School-Age Child
School-age children often are quite excited about a family move and love to become involved in the planning process. School-age children love to develop lists and are very project oriented. Use their enthusiasm and energy to help you get some of your moving tasks done.
Relationships with peers are very important for school-agers, and they can understand the effect of the move on their relationships with friends and neighbors. Although they can understand the separation from friends and neighbors that is about to happen, they may not have the maturity to deal with their emotions.
Most school-agers are quite positive before and even immediately after the move. A month or so after the move, however, they may become quite angry about the move, especially if they have not had much success forming a new group of friends. School-agers still have a very active imagination and may have imagined that the move would somehow make their lives wonderful. When reality sets in, therefore, they may experience a great deal of confusion, frustration, and anger.
What you can do
Scope out the neighborhood before you move. Are there other children your child can play with? If not, where can your child go to meet friends? Is there a community center or club such as 4-H, Scouts, or Campfire nearby?
Arrange to visit the school before enrolling your child. Be sure to point out familiar places like the school cafeteria, library, and restrooms. Kids worry about being able to find their way around.
Take pictures of your child, new home, and community and encourage your child to share them with others. A farewell party is also a good idea. A farewell party can help ease the pain of good-byes, make the move a concrete event, and help the child accept reality.
No doubt about it, moving is difficult for most adolescents. Teenagers are generally very involved in social relationships. As far as relationships go, your teen is now focused on learning how to develop more long-term relationships. Most teens feel that friendships and romantic relationships are being unnecessarily interrupted by the family's decision to move. Although teenagers have the maturity to understand the reason for the move, they may not be prepared to accept it emotionally.
What you can do
Parents need to give teens time and space when preparing for a move. Many parents postpone telling kids about the move, hoping that it will make things easier. Generally, it is best to tell them right away. The "grief work" of breaking relationships and saying good-byes takes time, and is best done before the move.
Even though teens seem much more advanced in their social skills, they may worry a lot about making friends and fitting in. Be sure to visit their school and check out local activities and employment opportunities for young people.
Communities have their own culture and way of doing things, and this is often reflected in the way teens dress. How they look is very important to teens. Before spending money on a new school wardrobe you and your teen may want to do some quiet observation or visiting with neighbors to see what is "in." Purchasing a "special" outfit can often help a teen feel more comfortable.
Parents also can help teens by paying sincere attention to their feelings. Accept your teen's feelings without getting defensive or lecturing. If a teen can express feelings openly and work through the "sense of loss" with parental support, he will be much less likely to express anger and depression in a harmful manner.
How long does it take for a child to fully adjust to the move?
Because of their limited ability to cope, moving is particularly stressful for children and, as a result, adapting to the move is a process rather than a single event in a child's life. Researchers tell us that children need time to adjust - often as long as 16 months. While the 2 weeks before and the 2 weeks after the move are stressful, this is also the time when everyone is distracted by all the details of accomplishing the move. For many children, the reality and full impact of the fact that they have left their old friends and familiar places behind forever doesn't hit until a month or so after the move. Frustration, anger, and confusion are common emotions at this time.
Other events associated with the move can have a direct impact on how children cope with a move. Financial problems, a death, or divorce can sometimes make the problem worse, and children's coping skills are stretched to the limit. Parents may then wish to seek short-term counseling for their children.
Strategies to help children adjust to moving
Acknowledge both positive and negative feelings. Let children know that it's OK and normal to feel anxiety. Watch out for verbal and nonverbal communication.
Much of the stress associated with moving comes from the "newness" and "difference" of things. Try to keep routines and other daily living habits as normal as possible. This is not the time to make a lot of major changes in your family life.
New adjustments take time. Individuals handle things differently. Some children will ease slowly into a new situation, some will leap in head first. Allow for differences in personalities.
Be a good model.
Children need to see and hear adults express their feelings and work through problems. A parent that feels comfortable with saying "Gee, sometimes I sure feel lonely," or "Today I told myself that I was going to meet at least one new person!" can provide a lot of support for children.
Promote peer interaction.
Hook into the community quickly. Ask a neighbor if he will introduce your child to neighborhood children. Link up with familiar organizations such as Scouts, Campfire, 4-H, and church youth groups.
Use children's literature.
Books and movies are wonderful for helping children prepare for and understand difficult situations. Story characters who model successful coping strategies are an excellent resource for children.
Unfortunately, moving is stressful for children but don't despair, with time, patience (and your help), their memories of the old home will fade, new friendships will be formed and your children will again be happy ... in their new home.
© Copyright 2007 Bill Boeckelman Publications