Moving Out: Soothing Your Child’s Anxiety

by Barbara Hey

Moving Out: Soothing Your Child’s Anxiety

I was reminded that moving with a young child wouldn’t be easy the first time prospective buyers entered my home. My 3-year-old threw his body across the foyer to block their entry, screaming, “Don’t buy my house!”

While my parents spent 40 years in one house, my daughter had already moved five times by the time she was 10. And she’s hardly alone: According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 42 million Americans move each year; of these, about 15 percent relocate to another state. The median length of time people now live in their homes is a scant five years. Many of these nomads are children, of course, dragged along as a result of parents’ wanderlust or job change; torn away from home, school, friends, neighborhoods  — everything familiar.

Change is always unnerving, but while an adult can envision how a move will benefit the family, kids tend to focus on everything they’ll be leaving behind. Exactly how a child reacts depends on her personality and age. Some kids adapt quickly and effortlessly; some take a whole year; others seem fine at first but may have a delayed reaction.

The more a child is involved with friends, the more difficult he’ll find moving away, says Thomas Olkowski, Ph.D., coauthor of Moving With Children. School-age kids, who have just begun to develop strong friendships and to feel comfortable in their fledgling independence, are likely to have a difficult time. But the 2- to 5-year-old set is also apt to be upset at the prospect of leaving a playgroup, a preschool, or even a backyard with a cherished tree. And even a baby can be thrown by a change in routine, such as a disruption in nap schedules or a crib now set in an unfamiliar room.

Still, there’s much that you can do to ease the way for the whole family. The key throughout: Stay calm, say both experts and parents who’ve been there. Children take their cues from Mom and Dad; if you feel positive about the change, it’s likely they will, too.

Barbara Hey is a freelance writer living in Colorado.

Breaking the News
Whether the move is weeks or months away, tell your child as soon as possible. Once the wheels of change are in motion, she’s going to know something is afoot, and if she doesn’t hear it from you, she’ll be more likely to feel anxious. As the date approaches, explain (to the degree that she can understand) what will happen: that all the family’s possessions will be packed up, put on a truck, and moved, and that everyone  — pets included  — will travel to your new home. And be sure to assure her that once you arrive, all of her toys and possessions will come out of the boxes.

Then hang in there while your child works out her feelings, be it through tears, silence, moodiness, anger, or temper tantrums. And when she’s ready to hear what you have to say, describe the great things that lie ahead  — a big bedroom, the nearby aquarium or playground, and new friends.

You should also let her in on what you’re feeling: “I told my kids I was anxious too, and that it was OK to be scared,” says Karen Wise, of Cary, IL, who has moved four times with her family. Children take some comfort from knowing that they’re not alone, and then may be better able to understand if parents seem preoccupied or become impatient.

Invasion of the Realtors
Keeping cool is a particular challenge during the selling stage. At a moment’s notice, realty agents  — with strangers in tow  — will traipse through your house, opening closets and flushing toilets, while your child screams, “I won’t move!”

“My advice is to leave the house when the realtor comes,” says Brenda Reishus, who moved from urban to suburban Boston when one daughter was 2 and the other was a newborn. The trick is to develop a system for rapid cleanup and departure: “We’d get a call and have to be out the door in 10 minutes, so I kept a diaper bag, with all the essentials, in the closet,” she says. A good game plan is to allow kids free rein in one room while keeping others as pristine as possible. Leave easy access to favorite toys in the selected room, with bins nearby to toss things into when everything has to be hidden from visitors. Says Reishus, “I bought decorative baskets with lids so that all the debris could be thrown in there and the house wouldn’t look like a toy zone.”

Involving your child in choosing the new home  — by taking him along or showing him photos or videos of the top contenders  — can be reassuring. And it can help get him excited about the prospect, particularly when there are kid-friendly features, such as a playroom, a treehouse, or a jungle gym.

Once you’ve found the perfect place, try to rouse your child’s enthusiasm by visiting the house and letting him play in the yard and see his room-to-be. If that’s not possible, try creating a photo album or making a walk-through video.

Some parents choose a neighborhood similar to what was left behind to ease the transition for all: “We picked the new area because it had a small-town feel that we were used to,” says Trish O’Malley, whose family moved from Chapel Hill, NC, to Mercer Island, WA.

Saying Goodbye
A child’s attachment to her home, her neighborhood, and her friends may be surprisingly intense. My then 3-year-old daughter took months to recover fully from her first move, and what she missed most were things that I never expected: the dogwood tree outside her window, the field down the street, the sidewalk great for chalk drawing. “My 5-year-old daughter, Kate, wanted to know if we could take the walls and floors of her room to the new house,” says William Schwarz, of Rockville Centre, NY. Before you go, take a walk through the house and neighborhood so your child can point out her favorite things (and so you can point out the similar features in the new house). Take photos for a scrapbook. Bring a camera to your child’s school to snap pictures of her friends and teachers.

Weeks before their move, the Wises encouraged their kids to draw pictures of special spots. “I was amazed at the detail they put into the pictures, and just what they found to be most precious,” says Wise. “They drew the exact spot where I read to them, the room where they played dress-up.”

While goodbyes can be difficult, your child should be allowed to say farewell to her friends with a going-away party or a special playdate. But be careful about overdoing it: “There was a party at school, at church, and at a friend’s house,” says Annette Bender, who moved with her two sons, 3 and 7, from Illinois to Tennessee. “I considered having our own get-together, but my older son in particular seemed sad after each party. I felt like we were hammering in to him that he’d never see his friends again.”

If the children seem to enjoy the goodbyes, then fine, says Henry Gault, M.D., a psychiatrist in Northbrook, IL. “But some parents push reluctant children,” he says. “They need to check their motives and be sure that the festivities aren’t really to make themselves feel better.”

Some kids feel comforted by leaving a bit of themselves behind. My daughter left a baby doll she felt she’d outgrown for the little girl who was moving into her room, along with a note detailing the highlights of the house. Kate Schwarz printed her name inside her closet, in tiny letters. Taking along a memento of the old house  — a snippet of wallpaper, an extra key  — may help your child as well. To lessen her sadness, my daughter took several cuttings from her favorite bush to plant in her new backyard.

The Big Day
If you’re relocating nearby, consider not having your child around to watch the trucks being packed up, since it can be a disturbing sight. “My daughter went to the beach with a friend’s family the day of the move,” says Reishus. “She was so excited about the outing that she didn’t even focus on the van parked in front of the house. ”

Once you arrive, set up your child’s bedroom as soon as possible, including furniture and wall hangings. This way, she’ll have a site that’s familiar enough to help her feel secure. And remember that young kids will go exploring, so scope out the new house for potential dangers. “I had a bag of outlet covers in my purse,” says Nancy Aslan, who moved from Denver to Seattle with her two children. “As soon as we arrived, I plugged up all the outlets.”

Then give your child  — and yourself  — a chance to adjust. Find someone who can give a kid’s-eye tour of the area: best playground, bike route, place to dig worms.

And when your kids feel blue, point out all the adventures you’ve already had, as well as those ahead: “I reassure them that we’ll visit their old friends,” says Wise. “But I focus on all the great experiences we’ve had by moving  — the people we met, the new zoo we visited, the beach we went to. I remind them that we carry our memories with us. And we can share them with all our new friends, in our new home.”