Moving With Children

The day before her graduation from Middle School, Ashley was told by her parents that the family was moving to a different state over the summer.   What made the news especially shocking to Ashley was her parents’ acknowledgement that they had known of the impending move for months but chose not to tell her in order to shield her from their uncertainties and logistical challenges.   Ashley arrived at school on the final morning of 8th grade and tearfully shared the news with her friends and classmates that she would not be joining them in high school as they had assumed.

Four year old Megan has been preparing for an international move all her life.  Megan’s mother, in an effort to prepare the family, speaks of the impending move on a daily basis,  a habit she has kept up through her husband’s graduate program and subsequent internship.  “Someday we will live in China,” Mom has told Megan from the time she could speak.  The family has planned for and anticipated the sale and/or storage of most of their possessions for several months.  Most of Mom’s friends know that this is not an easy move for her as evidenced by the way she discusses their future plans during every play date and meet ups in the community.  The family is willing to make the “sacrifice” of living in China for a few years in order to benefit Dad’s career.

Although these two scenarios may be extreme, they are real and recent events I have witnessed.  Both sets of parents have good intentions and want to make their big family moves positive for their children.  However, both sets of parents made some key mistakes that will make the transition more difficult for their children, and also the family as a whole, mostly due to the fact that each family failed to consider developmentally appropriate practice given the ages of their daughters.

As with most decisions parents are faced with while bringing up their children, there is no one right way to prepare a child for significant transitions.  However, there are a few key elements to keep in mind that can help make the transition more smooth for the entire family.

1.  Keep family routines going as normally as possible – both before and after the move.

2.  Be honest with the children and share a developmentally appropriate amount of information.

Young children who do not yet have a built in sense of time cannot anticipate events that will happen in the future the same way older children can.  A four year old has a hard time distinguishing between yesterday and last week or last month, and she likewise will have difficulty knowing what is tomorrow or next year.

A middle school student, on the other hand, has a clear understanding of time and has begun planning for and anticipating the future.  Many schools require students to choose electives for the following school year during the spring, and they must decide their preferences for various activities several months in advance.

3.  Show respect for your child’s belongings and treasures in a developmentally appropriate manner.

If objects need to culled, whether sold or given away, determine the level of attachment each child has to various objects.  Young children show definite and emotional preference for certain toys and objects and these need to receive priority in a move.  Other objects may not be so clear, but if a child is asked or told, the object may grow more precious.

(One trick that has worked for us when we have had enough time to plan ahead, is to pack toys and things away temporarily, perhaps during nap time or some other time the child is not observing.  If the child notices and asks for specific items, they can easily be retrieved.  If the items are not missed after a month or two, then they can be given away, disposed of or sold.)

Older children must be given more autonomy in what to bring and what to leave behind.  If space or weight is limited, allow the child to pack and prioritize things herself, with certain guidelines in place so that all the clothes are not left behind in favor of a pet rock collection for instance.  Allow the child to fill a box or suitcase or two of things that are special and hold value to her.

4.  Allow each child to have the opportunity for closure and to say goodbye to both people and places.

Visit places that have special memories and feelings attached.  Go to the elementary school one final time, even if it is empty during the summer.  Throw a going away party.  Finish well.  Time the farewells to occur at the end of the time, not too early, remembering that children’s sense of time is not the same as ours.

5.  Talk about the move in positive terms, allowing the child’s level of interest and questions drive the conversations.

6.  Keep adult worries and difficulties between adults.  Schedule time to have adult conversations away from the children.

7.  Maintain ROUTINES.

Big changes are not easy and bring both new challenges as well as new opportunities.  Transitions require flexibility and good humor, while also taxing the emotions of all involved.

8.  Allow yourself time to grieve and adjust and forgive yourself if things do not go as planned. Show the same grace to your children.

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