Coming & Going: Making the best of moving with kids

Families - August 21st, 1998
tokyoweekender_Diane Wiltshire

by Diane Wiltshire

For most everyone, moving is an emotional expe­rience. For many of us, it is downright trau­matic, right up there with death and divorce in the feelings of loss and confusion associated with a major move. When you add the pressures of worry­ing about how your children will adjust to a new situation and all the changes involved, anxiety levels can run sky high.

It helps to be as prepared as possible for the transi­tion, both in terms of the time you need to get orga­nized and the time your family will need to adjust to the idea emotionally. Some moves are easier than oth­ers, due to these factors.

A smooth or rocky transition may also depend on your children’s ages, temperaments and whether your family falls into the “have to move” category, as opposed to “want to move” group. Even if your family is enthusiastic about the move, leaving close friends and familiar sur­roundings for the unknown is often hard to do.

Perhaps your family is fortunate to have a support system within the company; many corporations un­derstand the value of providing families with orienta­tion and relocation programs. A good program can further prepare you for the move by giving you ad­vice on what to bring, where to live, and even what school may be the best fit for your child.

Another plus is being able to choose the timing of the move. Moving in the middle of the school year makes it more difficult for some children to have a sense of closure about leaving. For others, moving during the school year gives them the benefit of hav­ing extra attention as a new student in a new school.

Most families end up moving during the summer vacation when there is time to get settled before school starts, although the children may find it harder to meet new friends when school isn’t in session.

I have noticed there are some people who handle moving incredibly well. I am amazed at how many of my friends in the foreign service, for example, think nothing of picking up and moving to a new country every two years. These families are often well-organized and, for the most part, have mastered the logis­tical challenges of moving.

Of course, even for seasoned veterans, some moves are more stressful than others but, most importantly, these feelings of stress can be eased for those eagerly anticipating their next assignment and whatever new adventures await them.

A positive attitude really does seem to make a differ­ence. Even if you don’t have all the criteria for a perfect move, your whole family can still survive and even ben­efit from the experience. Perhaps you can’t control all of the external factors about moving (or life, for that matter).

Whether we like it or not, parents are the emotional barometer for the family. If our children sense we are frightened or depressed about moving, they will start to feel the same way.

But what if you are feeling frightened and de­pressed? How do you cope? I would suggest you start by writing down all of your fears, then make another list of possible good things that could come out of the move. Gradually add to both lists, pros and cons. As soon as you have had time to adjust to the idea (i.e., you can talk about moving without bursting into tears), call a family conference to break the news.

Try to convey a sense of excitement about the move but at the same time listen to your children’s reactions and validate their feelings as much as possible. Depend­ing on the age of the child, this does not mean you have to “fix” things; just listen and commiserate, initially.

After the shock has worn off, you can hold another conference where each family member makes his own list of pros and cons. Then you can venture to ask each child: “How can I make this easier for you?”

One idea is to research the new city or country and make a list of interesting things to see and do. Then the whole family can sit down and make a wish list of long- and short-term dreams and goals for the new life. That red convertible Dad would love to own one day, a pet for the kids or a chance to travel to exotic locales. Perhaps this move will open the door for the pursuit of some of those dreams.

If you don’t already have a pet, the promise of a dog is enough to cheer up most kids. We made good on this promise after our move a year ago, and our little dog has been great therapy for us all. Our family discovered that walking the dog was an easy way to meet the neighbors and make new friends. It also forces us to get out, have a bit of exercise and breathe in the fresh air, even on days when we’re feeling down in the dumps.

Another way to make a move easier for kids is to make sure they can stay in touch with old friends. Setting up e-mail is helpful and several friends may even decide to get a newsletter going. My son did that one year when his best friends moved to Singapore, Canada, the U.S. and Australia. It took some time for these newsletters to circle the globe, but each edition was treasured.

Arranging for summer or holiday visits with friends will give the children something to look forward to. Ask your kids what would help to assuage their fears, and you may get some good suggestions. We allowed our son to place a long-distance call for advice to a friend who had recently moved away, and their conversation eliminated a lot of his anxiety about what to expect.

Children, like adults, feel more comfortable when they have some control over their lives. For younger children, this may take the form of daily routines on which they can depend or favorite toys they keep nearby. Because a pre-schooler’s predictable environ­ment gives him a sense of security, moving is likely to be a stressful experience.

Keeping this in mind, try not to be impatient with regressions in weaning, toilet training, sleeping through the night or separation anxiety. As you make your way to your new destination, try to stick with familiar food, toys and bedtime routines as much as possible.

When moving with an infant, your best bet is to breastfeed for as long as possible. Not only will anti­bodies in the breast milk protect against germs in the new surroundings, but also nursing provides the ul­timate feeling of security for a baby. Moving is defi­nitely not the time to consider weaning.

If you are dealing with elementary school age kids, one of the most important things is to help them set up a new social life. Children are always pained at leaving friends and often fear they won’t make any new ones.

It is wonderful if you can live near their school or at least in a neighborhood full of kids attending the same school. If this is not feasible, encourage your child to invite friends over for a play date as soon as possible.