Helping Children When You Move House

Apparently, the average American family moves an average of 6 times over the course of the children’s growing up period. Everyone knows that people are always moving – you just settle in somewhere and your child’s best friend announces he’s moving to Seattle…. or your husband suggests you go to Philadelphia because there are better jobs there. Or young parents who settled in their college town decide to move to the country. Or to be closer to grandparents.
I felt quite relieved actually, when I saw that number. Our family has moved a lot – so much so that it’s too embarrassing (and too long!) to relate here the course of our travels – which included going back and forth between the US and Britain as well. And so I also feel like a bit of an expert on moving with children (!!) and so thought I’d share some ideas here as it is bound to apply to many of you at some point or another !
*   Don’t include young children in the pre-conversations about moving. This can cause a lot of unnecessary anxiety and as little ones don’t really have a sense of time, saying “we’ll be moving to be near Granny next Fall”  has no real meaning. Under 5’s (and even some children who are a bit older) will only understand that you are moving – tomorrow? next week?
*  Even when you make up your mind to go, only tell them fairly close to the time. Obviously, if you are packing up and taking several drives to the new location over a longer period of time, you might need to tell them sooner. But choose your words carefully and try to imagine into what your child might be thinking or feeling. A friend who is currently preparing to move has had to repeatedly go through all of her 2 year old’s possessions verbally, saying “yes, we are taking your teddy. Yes, we are taking your bookshelf.” etc. They got stuck when the child asked if they were taking her closet! Remember, little ones do not experience the world like we do – for this tiny child, to ask if her closet was going to be moved made perfect sense!
*   Think through how you will discuss friends with your child. Saying things like “I am sure that Mai can come and visit” might be helpful – but if that really is unlikely, then you’ll have to figure out how to help your child really say goodbye. Be careful with the temptation of e-mail – if your child is under 12, you really don’t want to go there. Once upon a time people who lived far apart wrote letters or sent cards – that is far better for children than e-mail. The telephone is another possibility! But be prepared – someone is bound to suggest e-mail and you need to have figured out what you will say.
*   My sons found it very helpful to make books about where we had lived. We used a main lesson book and I helped them remember and draw highlights from the place where we were moving from – when they were very little I wrote in the text that they wanted and when they were older they did this.
* Talk a lot about the new place – but beware of making promises that you cannot keep. If you are feeling guilty about uprooting your child you might find yourself promising to get a pony or something similar and then be in a jam when push comes to shove. Talk about the highlights – your child’s new room, living near the sea etc – but don’t exaggerate. You’ll also want to affirm your child’s feelings about the place he is leaving – especially if he is sad. “Yes, we will miss the park. You really enjoyed those swings.” Affirm. Hold the space. But don’t let your own sadness creep in and load down your child’s memories with your stuff. And don’t minimize, either, brushing it all under the table. The new park won’t be like the old one.
*   Many children move effortlessly with no trauma at all. But there are those who really do have a strong attachment to place. Your attitude and your inner strength will be what, in the end, helps your child adjust to her new home. So work on you – don’t just expect her to adjust.
*   Are there times in a child’s life that make moving easier than others? I would say that in general, the younger the child, the easier it is to move as the child’s center of his world is home – is you. If you are an attachment parent, your family bed might be really useful here – I am sure that one of the main reasons our many moves have been so easy is because my sons got what they needed emotionally from co-sleeping. Though I have recommended talking to your child – even your little child – about your move, the non verbal ways you approach this are far more important. Again – that means how you are coping and how your reach out with your calm love to your children – that is what counts most. And a family bed makes it that much easier. If the family bed is something you have never done or is past history, it is quite possible to playfully “camp out” together on mattresses all snuggled up together the first few nights in your new home – even if your children are really big! Even if they are teens!
*  Once the time comes to let your child know about the move, get her involved in the process. Let her help you pack and get organized. This is not the time to thin down the teddy collection – wait until you are in your new home for about a year before throwing away old junk. Of course, if you are super organized and know well in advance that you are going to move, you might thin things down a few months before the move. I’ve done that with good results!
* I would really caution parents against involving their children in decisions about which house to buy etc. This is your house – you will (hopefully!) be living there many years more than the children and only you and your partner as adults can make such decisions in the full context of location, logistics, price and a host of other factors. The children might see a really big yard or a pretty bedroom and then insist that that is the house you need to buy while you see the flooded basement and the isolated location. In our last move I narrowed down the choice of houses – then my sons (11 and 13 at the time) and husband came to see the houses. Even at that age, they were not fully able to participate in this decision – and were told so. They were not happy about this, but that’s tough. In the end, of course, they were really happy about our new home. But my eldest had it in his head to continue to live in the country and I knew deep inside that we needed to live in town. I was right – but could not make him see it at the time and so he just had to live with his outrage. It went pretty quickly.
*  Lastly, one of the real advantages of homeschooling can be seen immediately if you are a family that moves a lot (which is one reason why so many military families homeschool). Switching schools is really very very hard on a child. But although saying goodbye to friends and homeschool buddies is also hard, it is not compounded by the huge challenge of adapting to different schools. When you homeschool, life just becomes so much easier. Indeed, researching your new town in advance for older children and exploring it when you arrive (all children!) can become the basis of many a lesson in your homeschool.

Posted on April 20, 2007 in Family Life and Parenting

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