Behavior & Development • Dec 10, 2015

Moving with kids: ways to ease the transition when relocating

My two children and I decided on a whim to see a movie this past summer. I usually research movies prior to seeing them – especially given my 7-year-old daughter’s sensitivity to anything but happy plotlines. But I had heard good things about the movie, “Inside Out,” so I thought I would be brave and try it out without much prior knowledge.  As a psychologist, I was impressed at the outset that this was a movie focusing on different emotions and how those emotions evolve with development: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust. When I realized, however, that this movie involved a family moving across several states, I immediately regretted not having researched this a bit more.  After all, in a few months, we were going to be this family –though this was not at all exciting to the two children who had accompanied me to the movie.

Moving is not something that most people look forward to, at least not the process of purging and packing. Leaving beloved people and familiar places behind can be the most difficult part about moving. Even if the reason for the move is exciting, moving is often very stressful for the entire family system, but especially children. When I had the opportunity recently to move back to the St. Louis area after having been away from “home” for several years, I was excited about the idea. This move, though, involved transplanting my two children, who had known no other home; leaving the friendships we’d secured, the favorite restaurants we’d frequented and routines we’d established. Who wants to start over with all of this??

I was lucky enough to have had several friends with children who had recently moved, and they also just happened to be psychologists. Here is some advice that either I was given (and followed!), or I learned along the way:

  • Let your kids know when you know the move is definite. Especially if the move will be soon, make sure to let your kids know when you know for sure that you will be moving. If the move involves a change in schools or neighborhoods, let your kids know this, as well. Some kids will need limited information at the outset so as to not to feel overwhelmed, while other kids (usually older) can take-in more details. Make sure to not ask your kids if they want to move unless it really is optional! 
  • Expect different emotions to emerge. Some kids may appear nothing but excited when they hear about an upcoming move, while other kids may be immediately sad, disappointed and angry. These emotions will likely shift in different directions, especially given fluctuating stress levels with a pending move. Check-in with your kids to find out how they are feeling. There may be some changes in behavior, eating or sleeping habits, and make sure to try to find out what may be behind these changes. Expect that there may be an initial honeymoon phase after moving, with the idea of moving not really sinking in until weeks or months later. 
  • Involve your kids in the moving process. If you need to purge, let your kids help with this process. If having a garage sale, let your kids know that they can keep the profit from anything that is theirs that they choose to sell. If your kids are old enough to help, let your kids help with packing things like stuffed animals, books, etc. into boxes. My 7-year-old loved even labeling her own boxes. 
  • Pack treasured items last and unpack those first. Packing was my absolute least favorite part of moving, but packing my children’s items proved to be one of my biggest obstacles. “But I play with that ALL the time!” “I can’t not have that [insert doll/toy/car/train/lightsaber] for several weeks!” I learned to pack what I knew they wouldn’t miss and leave out until the very end what I knew they would miss. Both of my children were allowed to pack one container of toys or other items that they wanted first, and my husband and I packed these containers in our car. This bought us some time after the movers unloaded all of our boxes from the moving truck so that our kids had their favorite toys at hand without us having to sift through all the boxes. 
  • If moving to a close location, take your kids there to look around and see some familiar sights, but also point out the exciting changes. Since my kids had never moved before, their initial impression seemed to be that we were moving to a different planet, making assumptions that nothing would be the same. I made sure to listen to things that my kids said they would miss, and if there was something comparable, or better yet, exactly the same, then I made sure to let them know. For example, my kids LOVE to eat at McAlister’s Deli. Thank goodness St. Louis has these restaurants! One thing we didn’t have in our previous hometown was a professional baseball team. I made sure my kids knew just how close we would be to Busch Stadium (not a selling point to my husband, who prefers proximity to Wrigley Field). 
  • Stick to your routines as much as possible. Routines were really tough when we had various people in our house in preparation to sell. We did the best we could to keep our routine of an established bedtime and eating meals together as a family. We definitely did not have a 100 percent success rate (maybe not even 50 percent?), but we wanted to keep things as routine as possible so that after moving into our new home, old routines had not been forgotten. For myself and my husband, or our kids! 
  • Schedule good-byes, and make sure they happen. I registered last January for a week long summer camp for my 7-year-old, coordinating with the schedules of three of her closest friends. When I realized our July closing dates for the buying and selling of our houses was going to coincide with this week of camp, my husband and I worked creatively to figure out how to make all this happen. It involved one of us granting the other temporary Power of Attorney to close on the house while the other made sure camp happened, but in the end it was worth it. We also made sure to say good-bye to our house. My kids recalled stories in each room as we said good-bye. I said a long good-bye to my walk-in closet! 
  • Find ways to stay connected. Final good-byes are always tough, but if there is a way to meet up again in the future, schedule it. If you can, schedule an upcoming return to your old city. If not in person, think about use of Skype or FaceTime to help your kids still feel connected. We also sent postcards to our friends to give them our new address and to invite them to come visit our new city! 
  • Try to establish new connections shortly after moving. Meet your neighbors. Take the kids for bike rides around the neighborhood to meet some other kids. If the move involves a change in schools, find out if the new school has any scheduled playdates for the classroom. Or if your child’s classroom has room parents, get their contact information to see if some social opportunities are possible. My kids’ school has an online school directory, providing me the opportunity to easily reach out to other parents to arrange social outings with classmates. 
  • Consider making the new room similar to the old room. If you can keep as much of the new house similar to the previous house, this familiarity will help with the adjustment. Some kids do get excited by the idea of changing up their room (we’re planning a pirate room as soon as we can!), but make sure to keep some things the same: furniture, pictures, stuffed animals, pillows. 
  • Let your kids know it is okay to miss their old house and their friends. This scene was my favorite in the movie, “Inside Out.” When Riley’s parents admit what they miss about their move, this conversation allowed Riley to feel more comfortable admitting to her own feelings. 

In the end, do you know which of the three of us cried at the end of “Inside Out?”

Moving is hard for the entire family system, but hopefully Joy emerges as the predominant emotion.