Moving House

askateacherHow do you prepare your child for moving? We are moving to Chicago September 1, and I am just wondering what to anticipate when we actually leave/once we arrive, not the least of which is how to explain my own feelings about moving, which are mixed… I kind of dread him asking to see someone or go somewhere we have left behind and breaking down in tears… —Pegeen

I’m about to move house myself, so questions of how to make that transition easily are on my mind.

When moving with a young child, your big goal is to help them to be calm about the transition. You want to help them to know what’s coming before it happens, and help them understand what’s happened afterwards, in a way that includes as little stress as possible. Of course, any of us who have ever moved know that, no matter what, it’s a stressful time for everyone. So part of what you can do is to try to have reasonable expectations for your child’s behaviors and emotions. Think about how your child has responded to stressful times in the past, and be prepared for those behaviors to come up again. Just as importantly, think about general stress-reduction strategies for your child (and yourself!)—physical activity (sports, walking, rough-housing), sensory activity (sand and water play, cooking, rough-housing), and one-on-one relationship activities (playing together, reading together, rough-housing). In preparing for a move you have less time for these activities, certainly, but these kinds of stress-reducers are the most important at times like this. Try to squeeze in some every day—a little bit can help a lot.

In terms of what your child will understand about the move, both before and after, a lot depends on your child’s age and development. The appropriate time to discuss it will also vary. No matter the age, you want to be honest and clear.

For a two-year-old, you probably don’t want to discuss it more than a week or two in advance. Calendar time is confusing at that age. You also want to keep the information very simple. “In a week, we will all go together to live in a new house.” If your child asks questions, try not to answer more than is asked. For instance, they might say, “When can we go back to our old house?” and it’s tempting to launch into a whole discussion; but the child is more likely to just need a simple reminder, “We’re not going back. We live here now.”

For a four-year-old, you can probably start discussing it a few weeks in advance. At this age, most children will be able to understand the idea of a move in the abstract, but they may surprise you with questions you thought were clear: “Why are you putting our stuff in a box?” Children at this age are likely to have large, mixed emotions about a transition that they may not understand, so it helps to bring feelings into the conversation: “In a few weeks we are all going together to live in a new house. This will be a big change, in ways that are exciting, but also a little scary.”

For a six-year-old, you can probably bring the child into the conversation as soon as you know some information for sure. I wouldn’t bring up anything if a move is still a maybe, or if you don’t know where you’re moving—too many questions with “I don’t know” as the answer. You still want to keep information pretty straightforward, but by this age most children are able to think about hypotheticals and abstract ideas a little more. “How do you think you’ll feel when we live in a new place?” “What do you want to do to make sure you remember your friends here?”

At all ages, a message that can really help make things clear is that Some things will be different, and some things will be the same. You will have a different bed room, but you will have all the same toys and furniture in your room. We will have a different kitchen, but we will all still eat dinner together every night. There will be different parks in our neighborhood, but we will still go to the park to play together. And so on. Notice the emphasis, in all the “the sames,” is on the relationships. The fact that your family will be the same, you will do the same things together—that’s a very comforting idea for young children. (And for the rest of us too, right?)

For all children, a transition can feel like being out of control. You can help give them a comforting sense of control by giving them responsibility for parts of the move. Let them choose the color of their new room. Ask them to help plan the going-away party. Have them help shove pillows in a box, and choose which stuffed animals will go in a box and which will come on the airplane with you. You know your child, so offer choices you think will engage his interest. But the more he can participate with you, the more ownership he’ll feel in the process.

As you mention, you may have mixed emotions about the move yourself—and I guarantee your child does too. It’s really great to be able to talk about those emotions with your child—ideally, before they even come up. In the very first conversation you have about the move, you might say something like, “A move is a big deal, and a lot of times people have mixed-up feelings about it. You might feel sad and happy—even at the same time. I’m feeling nervous but also excited right now.” It’s tempting to “up sell” the move—”In the new house, we’ll have a SWIMMING POOL! Won’t that be AMAZING?!”—but that strategy is likely to backfire on a child who’s not feeling enthusiastic. It’s important, when negative emotions come up, not to try to ignore them or replace them—those strategies almost always fail. Instead, talk about the emotion. “You’re feeling worried about the move? I feel that way sometimes too. What parts are worrying you? … When you’re feeling worried about things, what do you like to do?” It can feel sometimes like if you open up to those negative emotions, your child will just feel that way forever. But in my experience, the opposite is almost always true. When the emotion is fully heard and understood and validated, then the child can move on to other things.

Finally, you ask, after the move, what might happen if your child asks about, say, visiting someone you’ve left behind. Just like the negative emotions, it often works well to support and validate the child’s wish, even if you can’t fulfill it. “I want to go visit my best friend,” he might say, and you might respond: “Oh, wouldn’t that be great? I wish we could go see him too. What would you do with him today if you could? … I remember a time you went over to his house and played the best game…” Perhaps at the end you might suggest writing a letter to him—but perhaps not. Sometimes just those pleasant thoughts and memories are what your child was actually talking about.

I worked with a family some years ago who moved, and after discussing a bunch of these ideas, the mother decided to make a book about the move for her daughter. She took photos of their family and the new and old houses, and pasted them onto paper which she stapled into a book. “This is Susie,” the book said. “This is Susie’s family. This is Susie’s family’s house. But soon they are going to move to a new house.” The book described how they’d put their stuff in boxes, and movers would take it to the new house, and so on. It also talked about how some things would be different in the new house, but a lot of things would be the same. It ended by saying, “No matter what, our home will be where our family is, and that will never change.” (Honestly, I’m tearing up right now remembering it.) They read the book every day, both before and after the move, and it helped their daughter understand the move a little better, and feel more of a sense of continuity throughout. It worked like a charm

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Have you ever moved with a young child? Let us know what helped in the comments!

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2 thoughts on “Moving House

  1. Skip July 24, 2013 at 7:30 pm Reply

    We painted our 2 year old son’s room in our new house the same color as in the old house, so that when he arrived and room was set up, it all felt familiar to start. At the same time, we discussed how to arrange and decorate his room using pictures and simple groundplans, and let him apply decals and other decoration to help him take ownership of the new space. Keeping the color helped him feel more comfortable that first night when he went to bed, and helping with the decoration gave him things to do and changes that he was in control of.

  2. Michael March 19, 2015 at 9:07 pm Reply

    On the day we moved, I first took my almost three year old son to the old house so he could see it empty; my thought is that I wanted him to see there was no place to go back to when he felt strange in the new house. He seemed to handle that well but when I took him to new house, he lost it. Really rough few hours but then not much problems the next day and beyond. He also got a new brother 2 weeks later so he would often say he wanted to move back to old house without his brother. But I think that was more about the brother than about moving.

    I’m mixed on whether taking him to old empty house was a good strategy or not. I think it probably hastened the transition but it was pretty traumatic. Depends if you prefer to peel the band aid off real quick or slow and easy.

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