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Moving with children

Moving is up there with the 10 most stressful things in life. For a child, it can also be an overwhelming and frightening experience. Thankfully, there are plenty of things parents can do to make the transition easier. "There's a lot of stress around the uncertainty of it all," explains Paul Morganstein, a Toronto-based child and family therapist. "There's often a kind of grieving process as they let go of what they have."

Experts agree that children of all ages need to be kept in the loop, so it's important to ensure they don't hear about the move by accident. Discuss it with them from the outset and outline the reasons behind it, be it a new job or the need for more space. However, warns Christine Uchida, a child, adolescent and family therapist in Ottawa, "Do not blame another member of the family for the move."

Instead, make children feel it's something they're participating in, rather than having imposed upon them. "Ask if a child understands why they're moving," advises Morganstein. Highlight the positive aspects of the move -- a bigger house, a backyard, a bright new bedroom -- but don't dismiss your child's concerns. "What may be insignificant to you or I may be the world to the child."

Timing is everything. Moving after a major death in the family or a divorce is difficult because children have enough to deal with. In such cases, parents must take extra care to communicate and assuage their fears. Regular visits to the new house, or photographs of it, might help alleviate anxiety and generate excitement.

"If at all possible, take kids on a tour of things like parks, ice cream stores, rec facilities, the new school -- familiarize them with the neighbourhood," says Doug Heldman, a salesperson for Royal LePage Estate Realty in Toronto. He caters to kids, as well as parents, when touring new neighbourhoods, pointing out features such as a great tobogganing hill and good streets for playing road hockey.

While forging connections with the new home, also encourage kids to stay in touch with old friends via letters, phone calls, email and visits, says Uchida. However, expect some fallout. "Change is always stressful for children," she says. "How well a child will adjust will depend on several factors." The reasons for the move, when it will take place, where you're moving, and a child's temperament and age all contribute to their reaction.

Moving with little ones
Younger children (those under the age of six) are sometimes easier to move, as they don't dwell on what is happening or how it will change their lives. Still, children thrive on routine and familiarity, so you have to prepare them all the same.

  • Don't make other major changes, such as toilet training or moving from a crib to a bed, at the same time as a move.
  • Explain what's going to happen early and often using the simplest terms. Turn it into a game, using toy trucks or dollhouses to illustrate what to expect during a move.
  • If possible, visit the new house regularly (or show them photographs) and explore the neighbourhood.
  • While you want to make your child part of the action, it might be easier if she hangs out with a relative or friend the day of the move.
  • Your child's new room should be filled with familiar objects. Now is not the time to purge and invest in new furnishings.

Tips for school-age children
School-age children will have more questions and concerns than younger kids, so encourage them to express themselves. They'll likely worry about the new school and making new friends, but it's also an age when kids embrace new experiences with enthusiasm.

  • Take your child to some open houses or to look at the potential new house before the move. If you're moving far away, use the Internet and maps to research the new neighbourhood.
  • Allow children to discuss what they're afraid of, but encourage them to consider the fun aspects of the move and the new opportunities it will bring.
  • Experts are divided as to whether children adjust better when a move occurs during the summer, so as not to disrupt the school year, or during the year so your children can dive right in, establish a routine and make friends in the neighbourhood. A new student is likely to get more attention from teachers and peers if they arrive mid-semester.
  • Provide a sense of continuity by enrolling your child in the sports or other activities in which he was previously involved.
  • Arrange all pertinent documents for a school transfer, including transcripts.

Moving with, or without, your teenager
Teens often resist a move if it separates them from that which is crucial -- friends and a social network. "For a teen their social life is their life -- it can be very difficult," says Morganstein.

"People are less likely to move when they have teenagers that are established," acknowledges Heldman. But, sometimes it's unavoidable. Again, involve them in the process and discuss their concerns.

While it's usually better for a family to move together, there are some circumstances when this might not work. If a move occurs during a teen's last year of high school, for instance, some parents might opt to allow their child to stay with friends so she can graduate with her friends.

After the move
It's important that children feel comfortable as soon as possible. So, unpack the kids' rooms before tackling the rest of the house. Give them a say in how the room is set up and decorated. Try to stick to the usual routine for meals and bedtimes.

Experts say most kids adjust to a new school within six weeks. So, be patient, take the time to introduce yourself to teachers and principals and encourage your child to get involved in activities.

Kids should embrace their new life in a relatively short period of time. However, "if the child experiences long-term anxiety or depression, significant disruptions in sleeping or eating patterns, or poor socialization, they may need professional help," says Uchida. Contact a pediatrician or family therapist for advice.

Michelle Warren is a writer in Toronto.

-- Posted: April 20, 2006
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