Moving day. Such excitement! Such distress! An event nearly every family experiences a few times, if not more. The impact on children is as varied as their personalities. But a few guidelines might be helpful.
One 4 y.o. boy, whose family had moved to a new state at the beginning of the summer, seemed to adjust surprisingly well. He had a great summer. His parents couldn’t believe it because he tended to have trouble dealing with change. In September, he started at his new nursery school. Suddenly he became sad, clingy, and began to soil – all the behaviors the parents had originally expected. Talking with this child gradually revealed that he had intuitively believed that living in the new home was just a summer vacation, like when the family had gone to the shore the previous year. He expected to be reunited with his friends in September. It was only then that he truly realized this was permanent and became upset. Of course his parents had explained the move, but he only heard what he wanted to believe.
In the hectic times following a move, parents often don’t have the energy to work extra hard on helping a child settle into the proper routine. A 3 y.o. girl didn’t like her new home and refused to sleep in her new bedroom. It was easier to just let her fall asleep night after night in the parents’ bed. As life settled down, they became increasingly frustrated with being unable to get their daughter to sleep in her own bed.
A 6 y.o. boy had no problems sleeping anywhere, until the family moved into a new home that was much larger and the boy’s bedroom was now upstairs, removed from the flow of activity. The new bedroom suddenly was inhabited with scary creatures only visible to a young boy.
Moving can be very disorienting to a young child. They are tiny creatures in a world full of giants and much confusion. They rely on predictability and attachment to care takers to generate a sense of security. Parents often believe that using words will suffice to create an understanding of what the child is about to experience. But young children do not comprehend the meaning of words describing experiences they have yet to experience! It may seem as if they do – but don’t be fooled.
This means trying to use any strategy that can make the change as concrete and tangible as possible. Buy a new doll house, set it up in another part of the house, move the family and their furniture, and play out the expected activities that occur after moving. Create a book about moving, with drawings and photographs of the old house and new house. Read children’s books to them about moving. Even though it makes moving day more hectic, have the children around as the movers load the truck. Children will rely on their magical thinking and childhood logic to address the logistics of moving. They need real experiences to help guide them through the process – even if seeing their belongings carried out of the house is initially distressing.
A favorite recommendation is to create a box of objects that provide a concrete connection to the old house. Take a shoe box and have the child fill it with leaves, rocks, and other small objects from the yard. Use a Polaroid camera and allow the child to direct what pictures she wants. By seeing them instantly, she can let you know if you’ve captured what she wants. You may also have some of her neighborhood friends put small objects in the box as well as a picture of the friends.
Object permanency is elusive for very young child. Out of sight often means it is gone. A few months after moving, especially if the child is expressing a dislike for the new home, make a trip back to the old home. “See, it is still there.” “See the new family and their new furniture in the house.” Yes, some children will be angry – “My house!” But that gives you a chance to help them vent the anger, working it through in play, conversation, or drawings. Then the child may be ready to complete the move.
As for the frequent night fears and sleep disruptions, keep the bedtime process in the child’s bedroom, meaning that you may need to stay in the room until the child falls asleep. Other regressions may also occur such as baby talk and loss of toilet training. This is partly a normal response to stress, partly a wish to return to the past. The child needs to be told that his being sad or mad or scared is normal. At the center of this must be the awareness that the young child’s distress increases the need to reaffirm his attachment to you, for that bond is the essence of his sense of security. Don’t lose sight of that in the midst of all your distractions caused by the move and, gradually, everyone will settle in.