Home! I want to go hooooooome!" my 3-year-old son, Austin, wailed through a waterfall of tears. "Hoooome!" I rocked him back and forth in my lap, trying to figure out how to respond.
"We are home, Sweetheart," I finally offered, pointing around his room in our new house, which we had moved into just three weeks before. "Look, there's your crocodile, your dinosaurs, your..."
"Nooooo! No, no!" he shrieked. "I want to go home!"
The causes of most of my kids' meltdowns verge on the ridiculous -- a cookie that broke before consumption or a favorite seat swiped by a sibling at the dinner table -- but this one was deeply legit. After 15 years of living in New York City, our family -- Austin and I, plus his sisters, Avery and Addy, and my husband, Wes -- had decamped 200 miles away to the suburb of Wellesley, Massachusetts. In theory, the move made sense: Wes had a great career opportunity and we had just welcomed our third child, meaning our cute two-bedroom apartment had become way too cozy. But on a pain scale of 1 to 10, leaving the friends we'd all made -- as well as a full-time job I adored -- felt, to me, like a 37.
My family, of course, is not alone in having to endure tough goodbyes. According to the United States Census Bureau, an estimated 45.3 million people moved between 2009 and 2010. And those migrations are not always for happy reasons. "Every family that moves experiences some loss, sadness, and apprehension -- but those feelings can be worse when families are forced to relocate. The reality is that in this economy there are a lot of negative reasons that cause people to pack up, like job transfers and layoffs," says Thomas Olkowski, Ph.D., coauthor of Moving With Children. "When you don't want to move, it can cause even more emotional upset and upheaval."
Tell me about it. Between Austin's sobs, Avery's anger ("You are a horrible mom and I hate you!"), and Addy's sleep disruption (she started waking up every two hours at night), our kids were unpacking their unhappiness faster than I could empty boxes. Worse still, my own ambivalence about relocating had crippled me when it came to comforting them. Desperate for some advice, I turned to parenting pros for tips on helping all of us survive the shake-up and thrive in our new surroundings. Use these pointers to ease your family's transition so your kids more quickly feel at home.
Get Them Ready
If I'd properly prepared my kids, I might have alleviated some of their stress. Several experts told me that how you handle the time leading to the move has a big impact on how easily your kids adapt. For toddlers and preschoolers, begin by calmly breaking the news about a month in advance -- that gives enough time to process the information but not so much that your kid has the opportunity to ruminate on the changes ahead. Of course, if you're selling your home and there are going to be months of potential buyers poking around your house, the conversation can't wait. Whenever you talk, don't just tell them what will be different. "Make sure you explain that the important things will stay the same, including that everything in the house, especially what's in the child's room, will come with you," says child-development and behavior specialist Betsy Brown Braun, author of Just Tell Me What to Say: Sensible Tips and Scripts for Perplexed Parents. Braun recommends making a book about the house you're leaving. Give your child a camera or a smartphone and have him take pictures of your house, his friends, school, favorite neighborhood spots; let him choose the shots. When you put the book together the last picture should be his new home. If possible, take your kids on an advance tour of your new house and point out sites that will matter: the playground, library, and ice-cream shop. Doing so will help take some of the mystery and apprehension out of the move so kids will wonder (and worry) less.
Allow Their Angst
Heartbreaking as they were to witness, Austin's crying jags and Avery's tantrums were a normal response to the seismic shift that had taken place in their lives, says Lori Collins Burgan, author of Moving With Kids: 25 Ways to Ease Your Family's Transition to a New Home. "Even if your children are excited about the move, don't underestimate how difficult some of the losses may be -- especially if the relocation means separating from someone they love and depend on, like a caregiver or a grandparent," says Burgan. That resonated with us. After months in our new home, Austin still longs for his beloved babysitter, Lisa, who took care of him since birth. I'm not sure it's possible for him to miss her more than I do. When we began writing letters together and Skype-ing with Lisa and other old pals, Austin's tears became more sporadic. But how long will his grieving go on? Of course, all children accept things at their own pace, but most experts estimate that it takes at least six months for kids to fully acclimate to their new life.
More Moving Tips
Walk the Walk
Even though I empathize with Austin, it's important to avoid throwing an all-out pity party. "Your kids look to you for cues. So if you're positive, they'll have a sense that everything will be okay," says Tammy Gold, founder of Gold Parent Coaching, in Short Hills, New Jersey. But for kids over the age of 3, it's also important for them to see your feelings of sadness and how you manage those emotions constructively. Just don't overdo the downsides. "Negativity rubs off on your child, so don't bad-mouth the new place or compare your new home with your old one. Try to highlight wonderful things about your brand-new town so your kids will look forward to it," Gold says.
Stick to the Schedule
Another way to ease the adjustment is to maintain some of your old routines. "Keeping up rituals like family meals or game night can build a sense of consistency that's reassuring," says Katie Novick, a therapist in Brookline, Massachusetts. For babies and toddlers, provide as much continuity as you can by maintaining the same bedtime rituals in the same order, says Laurie Zelinger, Ph.D., a school psychologist in Oceanside, New York, and director of the New York Association for Play Therapy. Maybe moving 5-month-old Addy into a different crib and using new bedding contributed to her fitful nights? Once I got this advice, I dug through some boxes to find her old crib sheets and put them on. Within a few days her sleep had improved dramatically. Coincidence? Perhaps, but I'll take it.
Give them Gumption
As the oldest child, Avery has always liked to be in control -- but my opinionated 5-year-old had exactly zero input in our decision to move. Could that be a reason for her rage at me? "Definitely, and you can ease some of it by finding things that she can make decisions about while you settle in," says Burgan. After hearing that, I had Avery "approve" my choice of rug and bedding for her room, but that wasn't exactly something she cared a lot about. So after many requests for a pet, we gave in and let her have two fish. Now when she gives people a tour of her new home, her aquarium is the first stop.
During a recent trip to the new playground, Austin ambled up the ladder to the slide. As he was about to go down, he yelled, "Uh-oh, Mommy." I stood at the bottom, watching with wide eyes as a stream of yellow liquid came from beneath his pants. My almost-4-year-old, who had been potty trained at age 2, had backslid on the slide. "Gross!" yelled a 7-year-old girl who watched the event unfold. Mortified, I fled the scene with my soaking son in tow. "A temporary regression is a natural way for young kids to deal with a stressful situation," Burgan says, adding that I should, ahem, go with the flow and not freak out. "Intense feelings about a move can also lead to sleep disruption, appetite change, clinginess, and tantrums," says Dr. Zelinger. "Don't rush them into accommodating you. They will adjust at their own pace. But if those feelings persist for more than a few months or interfere with everyday activities, check with your pediatrician," she says.
Get to Know Neighbors
Be sure to give your children lots of opportunities to meet new pals. This might be the time to let your kid sign up for as many activities as he wishes. You want your child to try out new experiences with different groups until he finds the ones who click. As for finding some mom friends, if your schedule permits arrive early to chat up other parents; kindergarten pickup has helped me make three solid friends in the time I've been here. Volunteer to be a room parent, join a local club, or throw a housewarming party, suggests Michele Borba, Ed.D., a Parents advisor and the author of The Big Book of Parenting Solutions, whose new neighbor hosted a huge bash with a bouncy house for the kids and watermelon mojitos for the adults. "Everyone wanted to come!" Dr. Borba says. "She had all the guests fill out an index card with their phone numbers and e-mail address, so she instantly had a lot of new contacts."
Soup Up Their Social Skills
"Younger kids make friends based on proximity, but school-age kids choose them based on similarities," says Dr. Borba. "We often expect our kids to make friends on their own, but we need to show them how." Have kids practice a conversation opener at home, something like, 'Hi, my name is Avery. I just moved here from New York because my dad got a new job.' It also helps to pinpoint games or pastimes that are popular in the area. If all the kids are playing box ball, say, teach your child to play. Finally, give her a little pep talk. "Let your child know that wherever she goes, she will make friends because she's such a friendly girl," says Braun. "Remind her how she made friends so easily at nursery school; reassure her that she'll do the same in her new surroundings." Bolstering her confidence will keep her -- and you -- feeling steady.
Now, six months since we dropped anchor, we're all getting our sea legs. Avery adores her school, Wes is excited by his work, and I'm starting to love the flexibility of writing when the kids are in school, then shuttling them to playdates and soccer practice. Addy, of course, has been growing just fine, but it's Austin who has had the most surprising turnaround, thanks to a bond with his classmate Will. The boys have become inseparable, able to play for hours without a whine. Will's friendship, it seems, has given Austin the grounding he needs, and my preschooler's wide smile is back on his face, brighter than ever.
The Best Books to Share Before the Big Move
Ages 3 to 5
Big Ernie's New Home, By Teresa and Whitney Martin
When Big Ernie the cat moves to Santa Fe, he misses the familiar comforts of home and learns that everyone -- even the very brave -- needs time to adapt to a new place.
Louis + Bobo: We Are Moving, By Christiane Engle
Louis and his dog, Bobo, learn to adjust to their new surroundings. Perfect for the kid who is anxious about the big day.
The Berenstain Bears' Moving Day, By Stan and Jan Berenstain
The Berenstain Bears are moving away, and Brother Bear fears this eventful day!
Ages 6 and Up
Maybe Yes, Maybe No, Maybe Maybe, By Susan Patron
PK relies on her active imagination to help her worried sisters adjust to their new environment.
Where I Live, By Eileen Spinelli
You and your kid can relate to the ups and downs of this story in verse.
Originally published in the August 2012 issue of Parents magazine.