Preparing Your Child for a Move
May 31, 2004, KidsHealth.org

Sooner or later, many families face the prospect of moving. Disruptive as moving is for adults, the experience can be even more traumatic for children, who are not involved in the decision-making process and may be unable (or unwilling) to understand.

Making the Decision to Move
The decision to move should not be made lightly when children are involved. You may be a risk-taker by nature, but children thrive on familiarity and routine. If you have older children who are settled and thriving in school and in their social lives, their needs should be weighed against prospective benefits.

A family that has recently been traumatized by a major life change, such as divorce or death, might want to postpone a move. "In this way," says child development expert Eleanor Weisberger, author of When Your Child Needs You, "the child doesn't lose everything - place as well as person." Unfortunately, such a major life change may affect a family's income, forcing the decision to move. Similarly, a job transfer may take the decision out of your hands. In any case, try to maintain as positive an attitude as possible for your child's sake. Children are overwhelmingly affected by parents' attitudes in times of transition; they are depending on you for reassurance that things will work out.

Talk and Listen
No matter what the circumstances, the most important preparation for a move is simple: talk about it, early and often. Give your child as much information as possible before the move, as far in advance as possible; more lead time means more time for the child to get used to the idea. Answer questions completely and truthfully, and be receptive to his reactions - positive and negative. Even if the move means a clear improvement in the family's living situation and you represent it in the best possible light ("You'll have your own room now" or "We'll have a nice big yard"), the perceived advantages may not outweigh your child's fear of change, especially at first. For an older child, it may be helpful to share your own fears, or talk to him about scary experiences you faced at his age. And don't ignore the child who seems unconcerned - he may be masking his fear for your benefit.

For example, Alison and her husband Eric moved from the Philadelphia area, where their two children had lived since birth, to New York City. Because they are habitually open with their children, they discussed it with them from the very beginning, when it was still just a possibility. "We had a lot of chances to talk about what it would be like, and I think that worked to our advantage," says Alison. "Colette (age 6) was very resistant; Adrian (age 5) didn't seem to have as much of an opinion. We did a lot of reassuring about coming back and maintaining contact with friends, without denying that it would be hard. It's about mourning a loss; when you leave your first home base, you have to mourn. And our kids did, particularly Colette."

Involving children in planning and decision-making, to an age-appropriate extent, can help them feel the move is something they are participating in, rather than something that is being thrust upon them. Alison and Eric included their children in the search process. "We took them along when we looked at places to live, and at schools. By the time we knew what we were doing, they had come to terms with it."

If you are moving across town rather than across the country, take your children to visit your new home (or see it being built) and explore the new neighborhood. If distance prevents such visits, provide as much information as you can about the new home, city, and state (or country). Learn about where your child's favorite activities can be found in the new location. If you have relatives or friends in the new location, perhaps you can enlist someone to videotape the new home and the child's new school. A realtor may even be willing to do this.

Before the move, be prepared for signs of stress from children of any age. Preschoolers may regress to thumbsucking, "baby talk," or other behavior they had left behind. School-age children may intensify natural traits: a shy child may become more shy, an aggressive child more aggressive.

Babies, Toddlers, and Preschoolers
Children under age six are by far the easiest to move, but as they have few mental resources for processing changes, your guidance is crucial. Keep explanations clear and simple. Stories are especially helpful. A toy truck or wagon, dolls, and furniture or boxes can be used to act out the move. Make sure your toddler understands that you aren't throwing away his toys when you pack them in boxes. If your new home is nearby and vacant, making advance visits and taking a few toys each time will help a very young child get used to the idea. Don't promote the move with false promises. What you say will be taken literally: a child who is told "Now that we're going to have a bigger yard, we can get a dog," may well expect the dog to be waiting for him when you pull up to the house.

Although a move may seem a perfect occasion for replacing old furniture, this is not the time to get rid of your small child's bedroom furniture. Keeping familiar objects and arranging them in a similar pattern to the child's old room will help him make a comfortable transition.

Similarly, this is not the time to move a toddler from a crib to a bed. Avoid other big changes, too: don't start toilet training or trying to wean a toddler from a pacifier or bottle during or immediately following the move.

Ideally, during the actual move a baby or toddler might stay with a relative or sitter. If this cannot be arranged, remember that he will need one-on-one attention throughout. Moving, like all transitions, is a high-risk time for childhood accidents. Consider taking a sitter along or giving an older sibling the job of looking after the baby.

School-age Children
While children in the lower school years are less pliable than preschoolers, their relative openness, combined with lots of support from you, can ease them through a transition. There are two opinions about "the right time to move." Traditionally, summer was held to be the best time, to avoid disruption of the school year. Recently some experts have been leaning toward mid-year as a better time, so the child can meet other children right away and possibly benefit from "new kid" novelty. However, this could be stressful for a child who has difficulty making new friends and is deeply attached to his old friends.

Middle-school children may be more open to the challenges of moving than both older and younger children, since they are already in a state of transition - from childhood to adolescence, one class to many classes.

A child's experience in a new school can make or break a move for him. Before the move, gather the information the new school will need to process the transfer, including the latest report card or transcript, birth certificate, medical records, standard test results, and descriptions of any special programs your child has been in.

Teens
Whereas younger children may have difficulty adjusting because they do not entirely understand what is happening, teenagers understand exactly what is happening and may actively rebel. Your teenager has probably invested considerable energy in belonging to a particular social group, and may be involved in a romantic relationship. If school activities have been the focus of his social life, a move may mean missing a long-awaited event, such as a prom.

When discussing the move with a teenager, it is particularly important to avoid seeming dismissive of his concerns or falsely reassuring ("Don't worry, you're doing fine here and you'll do fine in the new place"). Rather, you might discuss his apprehension in the context of "rehearsing" for future changes, such as going away to college or meeting new people in a job situation. If possible, begin planning a trip back to the old neighborhood right after the move.

If your teen remains strongly resistant, you might want to consider letting him stay in the old location with a friend or relative, if you have the option. This is particularly helpful in the case of a mid-term move, or a senior who has always attended the same high school.

Moving Day and Beyond: A Period of Transition
After the move, get the children's rooms in order before turning your attention to the rest of the home, so they will have a safe haven amid the chaos. In addition, try to maintain your regular schedule for meals and bedtime. Even if everything has gone smoothly, small children can be expected to show reactions to stress: refusal to eat, sleeplessness, clinginess, or other unusually demanding behavior. If your child tends to join you in bed when disturbed, for example, you may have a regular nighttime visitor for a while.

Don't expect children to go to a new school or child-care program immediately after a move (but do introduce them to the school as soon as possible). They will need time to get used to their new surroundings, and some special attention from you, before facing the next challenge. When your child does start school, go with him. Meet as many of his teachers as possible, and ask to introduce your child to the principal.

Have realistic expectations for your child. Teachers generally expect an adjustment period of about six weeks; some children may take less time, some may need more. Your child will need your continuing support. Alison was fortunate in being able to take a year off work, and used the extra time in ways that helped her children make a smooth transition: she got very involved with their school, and allowed them to invite friends over often.

If your child still hasn't adjusted after 6 to 8 weeks, and his (or the family's) ability to function on a daily basis is disrupted, it may be time to seek a family therapist. Look for these signs that may indicate your child is experiencing stress: physical symptoms, such as headaches or stomachaches; seems depressed or withdrawn; seems restless, tired, or irritable; is less interested in favorite activities; has declining grades; is overly dependent on you, defiant, or adopts antisocial behavior (stealing, lying).

While preparing for difficulties, remember that many good things can come from a move. The family may grow closer; parents may learn more about their children from going through the experience with them; and children may enjoy a new sense of independence and accomplishment.