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.