Navigating a Move With Children: How to Help Them Adjust

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Moving from one home to another can be an exciting adventure for a family. For children, though, the move can be bittersweet. While they may be thrilled about a new room or the prospect of a new neighborhood, they may also feel anxiety about leaving close friends or a familiar school behind.

As a parent, you can help your child adjust by displaying positivity, encouragement and patience while he or she copes with the uncertainty and lifestyle changes a move can bring to the surface.

Recognizing the Challenges

According to Family Therapist Stephanie Manes, it would be impossible to generalize about the challenges children face with a move. How a child is affected depends on a variety of factors, she says.

“The issues and the relative magnitude will depend on a variety of factors, such as the developmental stage, distance (is it down the block or across the state?), and family circumstances,” says Manes. “For example, is the move precipitated by divorce, loss of employment or associated with an intensely stressful period for the parents?”

Recognizing the stressors associated with the family’s move can help you recognize the most significant challenge for your child.

One of the most common challenges for children during a move is the readjustment to a new school and a new peer group. “Even for very socially comfortable kids, being the new kid on the block can be a source of intense stress, which may take quite a while to resolve,” says Manes. “For kids with any kind of social anxiety or history of bullying, this will be acute.”

As school-aged children are adjusting to new social groups, younger children may also face challenges associated with the move. “Younger children will primarily experience moves as a readjustment in structure and routine, which in and of itself is stressful, but can be addressed in a more direct and concrete way,” says Manes.

No matter the age, according to Manes, children will feel the impact of a move. “If the move is part of distressing changes within the family, children will likely feel that and the impact of ‘normal’ adjustment may be intensified as they cope with larger family issues,” she says.

Coping With the Changes

When adjusting to the changes of a move, there is no one-size-fits-all strategy to help children adjust, says Manes. Depending on the nature of the move, children will adjust in various manners, but your support, love and encouragement are crucial during the process.

If the move is simply to a new home and not occasioned by other family changes, school-aged kids and beyond won’t need much other than some reassurance that the connections to the old neighborhood and friends will stay alive, says Manes. Very young kids, though, will benefit from a slow introduction to their home, new caregivers and the use of transitional objects to make them feel at home.

“You can involve them in setting up items from their old home in their new space or let them help decorate their new room,” suggests Manes. “Try to keep routines as constant as you can, such as meal times and sleep schedules.”

School-aged kids and teens who are switching schools may need extra emotional help with the social transition. Parents and nannies should maintain a high level of empathy with the challenges their kids are facing, says Manes. “Let them know that you know how tough and scary this can be,” she says. “Show a lot of curiosity and ask how it is going.”

Although teens may rebuff the questions, keep letting them know that you are there to talk about it. “Don’t minimize the distress here,” warns Manes. “Let them feel as bad as they need to, but keep showing that you are still there.”

However, if you see major changes in their mood or behavior, such as withdrawal, extended periods of tearfulness or big shifts in eating or sleeping patterns, Manes recommends enlisting the help of a counselor or therapist.

It’s important to note that a cheerful word, welcoming hug or even a smile can make a big difference when children are struggling with the changes. “Sometimes, kids just want to know that you will be around at the end of the day, ready to just hand them a cookie or give them a hug,” says Manes.

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