When my husband informed me we were moving back to the States after six years in London I was confident I had this “moving gig” under control. After all, I already made a life-changing move overseas so surely going home would be easy. As an organized mom of four and a child psychologist, I had thought through every possible detail and was sure I covered all the bases. Then one night, my hysterical, inconsolable six year old came to me with her plan. She would find dad a new job in London (she had some very creative job prospects for him I must admit). Her next pitch was for dad to go back without us and visit on weekends. And her final, and heartbreaking, plea was to stay in London and be adopted by a British family! I had clearly failed, as both a mom and a psychologist.
All kids respond to a move differently. What I learned from the varied reactions of my kids was that the most verbal and emotional child was not necessarily the one who had the most difficulty with the entire experience. My daughter’s ability to verbalize her feelings allowed us to talk through scenarios, strategize ways to cope, and plan for success.
Over 40 million Americans, or one in five families, move each year. A move around the corner can be just as challenging as a move overseas for some children, who thrive on familiarity and routine. If your family is considering a move, PREPARE your kids with these seven simple strategies.
Plan when, where and how to tell your kids. Once your decision is made, tell your children right away. If kids overhear whispers between parents or hushed phone conversations with friends, it increases their anxiety and often their imagination is worse than reality. Include your children in conversations from the onset to reassure them they matter and give them time to process the experience.
A well planned conversation that allows time for feelings to be shared and questions to be addressed is paramount. The benefit of sharing the news as a family is that siblings can help each other and learn from one another’s questions. However, depending on your children’s ages and temperaments, you might want to consider telling them individually. A teenager’s concerns can be overwhelming to a much younger child who is more concerned about the concrete aspects of a move. Assess your own family’s needs and dynamics and create a plan that works best for you.
Be positive but honest. Share what you know, let them ask loads of questions, and express all of their feelings. Reassure them that you will find answers and address feelings and emotions together. Allow ample time for the news to be digested and encourage kids to keep the lines of communication open.
Remember change can lead to wonderful new opportunities and possibilities! As Walt Disney said, “We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” All things change. Change is normal. Change is exciting! Review with your children all of the transitions and changes they have experienced successfully (new grade, school, teacher, classmates, team, club, etc.). Get kids excited about researching their new neighborhood. Make a list of things you want to do before you leave and what you want to explore in your next destination. On a more personal level, let children think about their new room. Do they want it to look the same as their current room or different? Can they pick the paint color or decide where the furniture goes?
Encourage kids to express their feelings. All feelings are okay, it’s what they do with them that matters! Kids may feel scared, sad, angry, worried, excited, or confused. Help kids identify and explore feelings and discuss appropriate ways to manage those feelings. This will minimize the likelihood they will internalize or act out those feelings at a later time. Take their worries and concerns seriously and be empathetic. Bear in mind that these feelings may arise well after the move and will need attention. Be honest with your own feelings, it’s ok to let your kids know that you are sad to say goodbye to friends. Model appropriate ways to manage negative feelings and demonstrate effective ways to cope.
To ease anxiety before moving – get your kids talking, be empathetic and honest, address concerns as they arise, keep children involved, and stay organized. After the move it is best to have the children’s rooms set up as quickly as possible, maintain daily schedules and old routines (mealtimes, bedtimes), keep traditions, involve kids in their favorite activities as soon as possible, and support them in making new friends.
Plan your goodbyes. Kids need a sense of closure. Make a list of people and places you want to see before you leave. Be sure to take photos or videos for a memory box, scrapbook, or iMovie. Have a goodbye party with friends and let them sign a pillow case, hat, or shirt. Have your children create moving cards with their new address and contact information to give to friends.
Allow kids to be part of the process. Prior to the big day involve kids by giving them some responsibility (organizing toys or packing clothes) to make them feel needed and helpful. Make the chaos fun by allowing them to label and draw on boxes and use them after for creative play. Have your children pack a bag of their favorite toys, books, and snacks to take with them on the journey. Make a special plan to keep them busy on moving day. Allow children to come back and see the empty house for a sense of closure. Encourage them to leave a memory behind (carve their name on a tree or paint a stone for the garden).
Research your new neighborhood. If possible, take them to visit. If not, try to take photos or videos of the new house, neighborhood, school, parks and cool places your children will be excited to explore. Tour the school or set up a phone/video call with the principal or teacher and have questions prepared in advance. Contact the parent association and ask for a “buddy family” to speak with before you move. Research before and after school clubs and other school related events.
Encourage kids to get involved and make new friends. Younger children might need your support making new friends. Encourage them to join clubs and after school activities and organize playdates. Join expat groups, religious groups, community clubs, etc. Set an example for your children by putting yourself out there. Be friendly, have a moving in party, introduce yourself to neighbors… your children will learn from you. Stay in touch with old friends and encourage your children to as well.
Finally, reassure kids that no matter what changes in life, you will always be there for them. After all, home is where your family is!