An Age-by-Age Guide to Moving With Kids
Uprooting your child from their home, school, and friends can be as heartbreaking as it is exciting. Here’s how to reducing moving stress, help kids adjust to the transition, and even look forward to it too.
When my daughter, Hannah, was 2 years old, we moved across country from Boston to Indiana for a job. It was a huge upheaval for our sensitive toddler—she was leaving her day-care buddies, her favorite playground, and Grandma. But Hannah seemed cheery as she affixed pony stickers to the big moving boxes that clogged our way-beyond-outgrown apartment. She loved to look at photos of our new house with—parental hard sell here—a big backyard to play in!
On moving-in day, however, I had barely unpacked the microwave when Hannah's worries began. "Where's Nancy?" she demanded over and over. Her beloved music teacher from her old day care was clearly a symbol for all she'd left behind. And she wasn't keen on her "big girl" bedroom, down a scary hall from me and her dad. For the first few weeks, she found every excuse to flee it.
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Moving is a fact of life for many kids. Typically, about 10 percent of children ages 1 to 14 move in a given year, and for at least one third of that group, the move entails switching schools. With the freedom to work remotely, more families left big cities last year. But recent research suggests that the address changes can have significant consequences for kids. "Moves during both early and middle childhood can be associated with at least temporary decreases in children's social skills and increases in emotional and behavioral problems," says Rebekah Levine Coley, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Boston College, who tracked kids from babyhood to age 13.
Kids who are generally chill may take it in all stride. But by being aware of potential challenges, you can help your kids cope when you're feeling crazed and still can't find the box with all the beach towels. And in the long run, you'll be modeling lifelong lessons in adjusting to change. "Life is full of big transitions," says Ellen Braaten, Ph.D., codirector of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital, in Boston. "Moving is a great opportunity for kids to practice resilience when you are there to help them."
Moving with Babies and Toddlers
A child this age is pretty portable because their world is centered around family, notes Roy Benaroch, M.D., an Atlanta-area pediatrician and author of Getting the Best Health Care for Your Child. As long as all The Important People are coming, too, it's cool. At the same time, routine and predictability do matter.
Pause for snuggles.
"A baby doesn't care if the knickknacks are all unpacked. They want your attention," says Azmaira Maker, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in San Diego. "If you can be engaged and playful with them, that will make a big difference in how they adjust." So make time for lots of hugs and tickles. When they're off to kindergarten in a couple of years, you can alphabetize the spices.
Keep explanations simple.
How much you explain to your little one about your move depends on how verbal they are. Recruiting one of their stuffed animals can be a good strategy, says Tamar Chansky, Ph.D., author of Freeing Your Child From Anxiety. "You can talk to it and say, 'Hey Bear, you will have a new house but you will still get to live in Olivia's room.' "
Pack their bedroom last and unpack it first.
Experts agree that setting up kids' rooms is a crucial first-day goal. Amid the hot mess, they can have a safe haven. "On moving day, I pulled my kids' sheets off their beds at the old house, washed them, then packed them in a special suitcase," says Stacy Gentling, of Oklahoma City. "When we got to the new place, they were able to sleep on their favorite, familiar sheets the first night." Packing a backpack or a small bag for each child with "can't sleep without it" items can prevent ripping open everything in a desperate search for the unicorn night-light.
Keep to crucial routines.
Aim for priorities, not perfection. "Think about the showstoppers in your child's daily life routine," advises parent coach Carla Naumburg, Ph.D., author of Parenting in the Present Moment. "My daughters are a mess if they don't get enough sleep at night. When we moved, I tried my hardest to keep them to their regular bedtimes." But laying out clothes the night before? LOL.
Moving with Preschoolers
Kids this age will sense that big changes are in the air, but they may have no practical concept of what a move entails, Dr. Chansky says. They may wonder, "Do we get to keep our old house too?" "Are we taking the toilet?" or, more harrowingly, "Will I have to leave all my toys and pets for the new family?" You can reassure them and put things in perspective.
Talk about what's happening.
Children pick up on those whispered conversations, so tell them as soon as you can. You don't need to give your kid months of advance warning, but fill them in when it's getting obvious: You're showing the house, readying for the big yard sale, packing. Spell out what is staying the same (the whole family is coming, your bed is coming) and what is changing (we will have a basketball hoop, you will have a new preschool). Even if you have qualms, presenting the move in a positive light is crucial because your child will take cues from you. "I shared with my kids a list of three reasons to be excited," says Ali Wenzke, author of The Art of Happy Moving. "Dad is going to build a treehouse in the backyard, you can walk to school, and we can ride our bikes to the ice-cream shop."
Visuals are useful.
At this age, seeing is believing. Ideally, take your child to visit the new house or play in the new yard before the move. If that's not possible, give them a video house tour or look at photos. "Google Maps was my new best friend," Gentling says. "We walked through the new neighborhood and downtown that way. The place felt familiar when we got there."
Let your child "help."
Put your preschooler in charge of packing up some of their books or games so they feel they're contributing. With the proper spin, kids can even help weed out all the junk not worth moving: "I set up a 'toy store' in our basement, collecting all the toys from around the house," recalls Wenzke. "Then I gave the kids sticky tabs so they could 'buy' anything they wanted to keep by tagging it. We ended up getting rid of a ton because the kids knew exactly what they wanted to buy and what they didn't need anymore."
Take advantage of their total obsession with boxes.
Wenzke moved from Chicago to Knoxville, Tennessee, with three kids under age 4. "While we were packing, I would make little caves for the kids by turning boxes on their sides. I put a blanket and a flashlight and books and snacks in there. We also created villages out of boxes—a school, a hospital—or turned them into race cars. It made them think of the whole experience as a fun time. Meanwhile, I was frantically packing whatever I could nearby."
Be a friendship coach.
Pals help a new place feel like home, but forging relationships takes time. "We did a lot of role-playing together about how to approach a new kid at the playground or the pool," Wenzke says. "I reminded kids: S.E.A.: Smile. Eye contact. Arms open."
Moving with School-Age Kids
They're leaving beloved teachers, teams, and—sob!—friends. "Parents can underestimate the impact of losing friendships," Dr. Benaroch says. "When a kid has had a bestie for a couple of years, that feels like forever. Moving away can be really hard." But there are ways to help them over the hump.
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Don't take it personally.
If your kid says something like, "I'm not moving. I hate you," it's easy to get defensive, especially if you're stressed, Dr. Braaten says. "You may want to yell back, 'You can't talk to me like that! We have to move for my job.' " Instead, listen for the feelings behind the words and empathize. Or share your ambivalence. You could say, "I'm excited to move, but I'll really miss our neighbors." Hearing what you're going through can help them put their own feelings into words.
Find ways to say goodbye.
"Giving kids some closure helps them process these significant changes," says Dr. Braaten. "Offer your child choices: Would you like to go to the playground with Ava? Or make something for her to keep?" Dr. Naumburg recalls: "My 6-year-old went around the house saying goodbye to each room: Goodbye, kitchen. Thanks for all the food."
Set up an email for your kid.
Technology makes it easier for your kid to stay in touch with the friends they're leaving behind. If they don't have one already, establish an email address that they can use to send notes and photos. Assure them that they can use Zoom or FaceTime to hang out together. They can also buddy up for online games. Planning a future trip to see a left-behind best friend, if possible, can be a helpful way of making goodbye not feel like forever.
Tips for Making Multiple Moves with Kids
Moving once can be hard enough. But being uprooted multiple times because of job changes, divorce, or being in the military brings extra challenges. Some tips on weathering a new round:
Stick to real talk.
This time, at least, moving is no longer a great unknown. Use that experience to help explain what's ahead, suggests Dr. Tamar Chansky. Try for a positive spin: "You did a good job with all the changes when we moved to this house. Do you remember that?" If you are faced with shrieks and tears, resist the urge to swear that after this time you will stay put forever. "Remain in the present, and don't make promises if you're not sure about the future," she says.
Preserve stability in other ways.
Returning to the same beloved sleepaway camp every summer, arranging just-like-always trips to the grandparents, or enrolling in an activity or sport that kids are passionate about can reassure them that not everything they love is changing.
Give it time.
Another move may unleash big feelings, especially if your older child has to leave friends they worked hard to make last time. Be patient as they work through emotions, but continue to set appropriate, positive, and healthy limits. Being mad about being the new kid at school again: fine. Shoving your sister because of it: not fine. Keep an extra-close eye on your child's adjustment, and check with a school counselor or a therapist if you worry about your child's coping during this stressful transition.
This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's May 2021 issue as "Your Family's Moving. Now What?" Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here