Whether you're headed across the country or across town, moving to a new home is a challenge. Add children to the equation and the to-do list gets longer, the logistics grow more complicated, and the stress level soars.
"Even babies react to the chaos and frenzy of a move, becoming fussier or more clingy than usual," says Stuart Copans, M.D., a child psychiatrist and coauthor of Smart Moves: Your Guide Through the Emotional Maze of Relocation (Smith and Kraus, 1996). When children of any age feel their parents' tension rising, they respond by expressing their own anxiety through whining, sulking, or full-blown tantrums.
But children aren't merely reacting to parental stress: The move itself is tough for kids even as young as 3 or 4. "At this age, children's identities revolve around where they play, sleep, and live," says Javad Kashani, M.D., a professor of pediatrics and psychology at Case Western Reserve University, in Cleveland, and coauthor of Raising Happy Children (Three Rivers Press, 1999). Preschoolers often have intimate relationships with objects such as their toy box or their bed, so for them, the packing process alone can be deeply unsettling. When the things that have always surrounded them start to disappear into boxes, "it's a unique kind of separation anxiety," Dr. Kashani says.
Older children often have an even tougher time because they've developed emotional bonds beyond the home -- with friends, schoolmates, and neighbors. "Moving can elicit feelings of sadness, anger, and fear," Dr. Copans explains. "It's hard for children to say good-bye to the only place they've ever known.
- First, take care of yourself. Don't try to be a superparent and manage everything on your own. Hire baby-sitters to watch the kids while you pack and clear out the house. Accept offers of help from family and friends. Remember: If you're feeling overworked and overwhelmed, it will be harder to take care of your kids.
- Talk, talk, talk. Initiate frequent conversations with your child to gauge his feelings about the move. Be straightforward: For instance, you could say, "You seem unhappy; are you sad about leaving our old house?" Sympathize with his sadness about moving away from a familiar neighborhood, but try to shift the focus to the positive: "I know that you're going to miss our favorite park, and I will too. But there's a great big playground with a brand-new red seesaw right down the street from our new house." Don't expect to always be able to cheer the kids up. Like the rest of us, children sometimes just need to vent. If you don't give them the opportunity, they'll simply hide their real emotions from you and deal with the bad feelings on their own.
- Maintain your routines. During times of transition, predictabil- ity is more important than ever. So stick to your usual schedules as best you can. Keep up your ritual bedtime story or your usual Saturday-morning pancake breakfast. Wait until you're settled to introduce any big changes to your child's life. This is not the right time to wean a baby or begin toilet-teaching, for instance.
- Take a tour. As soon as you know where you'll be living, go with your child to see the new home and neighborhood. Drive around town and check out parks, movie theaters, swimming pools, and toy stores. "We took our 6-year-old daughter, Sarah, to visit her school before we moved so she could see her classroom, where the bathrooms were, where the nurse's office was, and so on," says Laurice Perlman, who moved from Lexington, Massachusetts, to Randolph, New Jersey. "I think that helped ease her fears."
- Get him connected. Ask a teacher, a coach, or a prospective classmate in the new town to call, write, or e-mail your child before the move. This contact lets your child know that people are looking forward to your family's arrival. "I contacted the Boy Scout troop in our new town through a troop leader in my old neighborhood," says Anne Kempsell, who moved from Plymouth, Massachusetts, to Centerville, Virginia. "As soon as we arrived that summer, my 12-year-old son, Deric, went to Scout meetings and attended a weeklong camp. By the time he started school, he had established friends and felt like he was part of the community."
- Create memories. You can help your child deal with feelings of separation by making sure she preserves memories of your old house. Craft projects are a great way to do that. Make a collage, or create a "memory box" filled with drawings or e of her bedroom, the playroom, the kitchen and so on. If you're moving far away, include mementos of her favorite places and of friends she'll no longer see. Or take snapshots (or let her take them) and arrange the photos in a special album.
- Keep him involved. Your child will feel more in control of the situation if you allow him to participate in the moving preparations. Encourage him to pick out wallpaper for his new room, decide where to place the doghouse, or select the color of your new mailbox. On moving day, allow your child to help pack his favorite things into boxes. If he has mastered his letters, have him label boxes containing his belongings. If he doesn't know how to write yet, let him decorate the boxes with crayons or nontoxic markers.
- Bid a grand good-bye. Organize a farewell pizza party for your child and her friends, or host an impromptu potluck gathering for all your neighbors. As you prepare to leave your home, create a special ritual for saying good-bye. Let your child blow kisses into all the nooks and crannies of the house. Encourage her to share a special memory about each room as you do a final walk-through.
- Minimize the chaos for kids. If possible, let children spend moving day with friends or a family member. "We left our kids with their grandparents and got their rooms completely set up before they came back," Perlman recalls. If that can't be arranged, have activities on hand (like games and coloring books) to entertain them so they won't get underfoot. Put the boxes containing the children's belongings on the truck last, so that they are first off when you get to your new home. Set up your child's room as soon as you can. If he's old enough, let him help put his things away.
- Celebrate new beginnings. Do something special to mark the first time everyone is together in your new home: Go out for ice cream, watch a favorite family video, let the kids "camp out" in sleeping bags in the new master bedroom. As soon as possible, go to the local playground and library so your kids can become familiar with the new faces. Take a family stroll around the block, keeping an eye out for driveways with toys and bicycles. And when you're feeling up to it, invite families with kids to a no-fuss party with store-bought finger foods and paper plates. It's an important first step toward making your new house a new home.
Your Moving To-Do List
- As soon as your plans are firm, tell the kids. Mark moving day on the calendar with a big red exclamation point!
- Contact new schools and day-care centers to get information and enrollment paperwork. Ask a real-estate agent or the local chamber of commerce for recommendations on pediatricians, family practitioners, and veterinarians. Send away for pamphlets about fun places and events in your new town.
- Read books about moving. Some suggestions for young children: I'm Not Moving, Mama! by Nancy White Carlstrom (Aladdin, 1999); Goodbye, House: Kids' Guide to Moving, by Ann Banks and Nancy Evans (Crown, 1999); and the classic The Berenstain Bears' Moving Day, by Stan and Jan Berenstain (Random House, 1981).
On moving day
- Keep all essentials -- medication, diaper-bag items, favorite blanket -- close at hand so they don't get lost in all the confusion.
- Childproof your new home even before your belongings are completely moved in. Install safety locks, gates, and outlet covers immediately.
- Take a house tour that features stops like "the bathroom where we go potty" and "the room where Mommy and Daddy sleep and are always there for you."
The Best Time to Move
Many families don't have the luxury of choosing the time when they move. That decision is often dictated by the start date of a new job or the closing date on a house, or both. But if you do have leeway, it's best to move in late spring or early summer.
The pace of life is more laid-back at this time of the year, and you'll have a chance to settle in before everyone's schedule picks up in the fall. What's more, it's easier to meet neighbors during warm-weather months. Kids are more likely to be playing outdoors, and communities generally hold block parties, street fairs, and other neighborhood events. And if your children are school-age, this timing allows them an opportunity to adjust to their new home during vacation and begin school at the start of a new year.
Copyright © 2002 Emily Perlman Abedon. Reprinted with permission from the June 2002 issue of Parents magazine.