New Year, new home? (Tips for moving with kids)

Moving.  It’s difficult on a nice sunny day with minimal boxes, no kids, and just a few pieces of furniture.  But add in kids, years worth of stuff (regardless of how necessary it is), and possibly a pet or two and it can quickly become a nightmare.  We moved into this house when Riley was just thirteen months old.  You would think it would make for an easy transition.  It didn’t.  Due to Sean’s workaholic nature combined with the music industry’s insistence on working until all hours of the night, I would spend my days re-packing what Riley unpacked, and my nights packing the rest.  When Sean rolled in around 2am each night he packed for another hour before crashing out for a few.  This went on for a good two weeks straight, and even then we didn’t get it all done by moving day.  We planned ahead to the extent that we could.  We had Riley’s room painted exactly the same color and set up the furniture in roughly the same pattern.  She cried for five nights straight.  And did I mention that it poured on moving day?  Riley took her nap in the car in the Whole Foods parking lot while Sean desperately tried to get her room together.  It was a tough move, for sure.  And that was just one blissfully unaware baby moving a few miles to the next town over.  We’re never moving again!  You can only imagine how complicated moving can be when there are older (and more) kids involved, the move is out of state (or maybe even across or out of the country), and some or all parties involved are not all that psyched about moving anyway.  All kids react to change differently but in general, moving entails a major emotional transition.  Babies and toddlers need time to adjust to new surroundings.  Preschoolers and young elementary aged children often develop mild anxiety about social change and veering from a well-developed routine.  Older elementary and middle school students tend to feel uprooted from their school, extra curricular activities, and friendships.  And high school students can be expected to exhibit anger and frustration.  Wouldn’t you?  Developing friendships is hard work.  It starts in preschool, and really doesn’t end.  To date my closest friendship remains the one that started in the sandbox (well, figuratively speaking).  We send our kids to school to learn and grow.  But they are the ones doing the work.  They are listening, learning, seeking help, and juggling social relationships for at least six hours a day.  It’s exhausting.  It’s a huge investment.  To be pulled away from that because the family needs to move for one reason or another isn’t ever easy.  As I said before, it’s a major emotional transition at any age.  So how can you help your children cope with a move?  Below are some tips to help ease the transition (just try to keep in mind that moving day is almost never perfect, no matter how much planning you put into it):
Moving with babies and toddlers/preschoolers:
1.   Keep it simple:  Provide a clear, simple explanation.  They don’t need to know, nor can they understand, the pros and cons list developed in order to make this decision.  They just need to know that your family is moving to a new home, and that you will still be able to take care of their needs during the move.  Allow them to ask questions, and provide clear answers.  They are likely to be concerned about toys and other belongings, the nearest park, and friends.
2.   Pay a visit:  If you are moving nearby, try to pay a visit to the new home and explore the neighborhood.  Point out the parks, schools, and other play places.  If you can get into the house, move toys over slowly.  If you are moving far away, get as many pictures as possible and use Google Earth to find parks and schools. 
3.   Be consistent:  In the 0-4 age range, it’s best to keep the new room as similar to the old room as possible.  Use the same paint color, arrange the furniture in the same way, and put up the same decorations.  Make it feel like home.  You will still need to expect some fear/transition issues.  It can be hard to sleep in a new place, especially after a big move that has likely taken up much of your time lately.  Be patient.  And by all means, KEEP THE SAME ROUTINE!
4.   Provide reassurance:  In this age group, repetition is the name of the game.  You can expect them to be afraid that you are getting rid of their toys and/or that some toys or family members might get left behind.  Reassure them that you are all going together, and that the toys are being packed to go to the new house.  Leave out a practice box where they can put the toys in and take them out.  Let them “help”.  You will be up late repacking other stuff anyway, what’s an extra box? 
5.   Forget the milestones:  Now is NOT the time to start potty training, taking away bottles and pacifiers, or moving into a big bed.  Make the move, give it at least 6 weeks to get settled, and then move forward on developmental tasks.  Newly potty trained?  Expect accidents.  New to a big bed?  Be prepared for sleep issues (see “Sleep Tight” post for tips on helping them get to sleep).
Moving with elementary and middle school age kids (5-12):
1.   Allow some control:  Let them decorate and arrange the new bedroom.  Giving them some choices about their new environment will help them get settled.  Don’t like the paint choice?  You can change it someday, but for now they need to feel comfortable.  A bedroom is your child’s safe place.  You want it to be somewhere that they feel comfortable spending time.  Designing their own rooms will help them stay positive about the move.
2.   Reach out to the school:  Talk to teachers and Administrators at the new schools long before you go.  Tell them a little about your child so that they will know what to expect and possibly help match them up with other kids.  Ask for help.  When Riley started her preschool Sean was still touring with John Mayer.  I pulled the teachers aside during the orientation to discuss her pattern of behavior when he tours.  They were grateful for the heads up and very attentive to her during the transition.  Try to visit the school during off hours so your child can look around without enduring the stares of curious students.
3.   Enroll early:  Whether your child is athletic or artsy, find classes or teams that interest them and get them enrolled before you move.  Ask them for input and let them see what’s available in the new neighborhood.  Extra curricular activities help kids feel grounded, and provide an instant social scene.  This is a priority when uprooting your kids.
4.   Help them stay in touch:  Make a plan for how they will stay in touch with friends once they move.  It’s very difficult to leave childhood friends behind.  Talk about this openly and often.  But stay focused on them.  This is not the time to tell them how much you will miss your friends.  You need to be the strong one now.  Make a bunch of self-addressed, stamped post cards for them to give to their friends so that they will get some notes from their friends when they get to the new house.  Help older kids to send email (monitored back to your account, of course) to feel connected.  Keep the goodbyes simple.  Big parties are likely to be overwhelming at this age.
5.   Expect emotional outbursts:  Kids in this age range are likely to feel many emotions, with a heavy focus on anger, sadness, and loneliness.  Be there for them.  Listen to their concerns.  Check in often.  Hug them every chance you get.  Stay positive without downplaying the difficulty of the move.
Moving with high schoolers (yikes):
1.   Allow some control:  Let them decorate and arrange the new bedroom.  Giving them some choices about their new environment will help them get settled.  Don’t like the paint choice?  You can change it someday, but for now they need to feel comfortable.  They will probably be spending a lot of time there as they transition.  It only needs to look and feel good to them.
2.   Meet with teachers:  Try to catch ten minutes with each teacher (or arrange a group meeting) to discuss strengths, weaknesses, areas of interests, and strategies that work.  Most high school teachers will expect the transition to take a good six weeks or so.  Let them help you along the way.  They are the experts in this area.
3.   Keep in touch with old teachers:  Many high schools students come to favor a certain teacher or administrator.  Help your child stay in touch with that person via email.  They will need a lot of support during this transition, and a favorite teacher can be an invaluable resource when it comes to helping your child stay positive.
4.   Know what’s available:  Find out what sports and activities are available before you move so that your child can decide where to begin finding new friends.  Have a drummer on your hands but the new school doesn’t have a band?  Find the nearest music store and get him involved in a band outside of school.  Don’t allow the move to change everything that your child is accustomed to.  Go the extra mile to make sure that they will have the activities that they need to feel positive about themselves and their new surroundings. 
5.   Stay connected:  Find a way to make sure that your child can attend that prom or homecoming dance they’ve been looking forward to at their old school.  Make specific plans to pay visits to old friends or family members.  Keep asking them how they are feeling about the move, no matter how many times they tell you to go away (or something less pleasant).  Throw a going away party.  Take lots of pictures, even when they tell you to stop.
6.   Expect anger:  A move during high school can be very disruptive to your kids.  They have worked hard to form relationships with teachers and build long-term friendships.  They will be angry.  They will yell.  They will retreat to their rooms, blast music you can’t stand, and rely on sarcasm.  Tell them that you understand.  Don’t take it personally.  Help them plan for the future and find ways to stay in touch with the past.  It can be useful to talk about thinking about a move as practice for a transition to college, but don’t expect it to be a quick fix.  Be there for them.
For parents:
1.   Watch what you say:  Like or not, you are constantly providing cues about your attitude toward the move.  Stay positive in the presence of your kids.  They are ALWAYS listening…even when you think you are just whispering with another mom during a play date.  Make sure you have support so that you can call your friends and vent when the kids are asleep.  But by day, focus on the positive.
2.   Family to-do list:  Hold regular family meetings as you prepare to move so that you have a certain time to check in about how everyone is feeling.  Attendance is mandatory.  Try to make it fun.  Play family games.  Stroll down memory lane.  Let the kids get involved in planning the moving to-do list.  Let the three year old add, “pack my toys and sippy cups” to the list and then let him/her cross it off when the task is complete.  All jobs are important!
3.   Stress relief:  Make sure you are taking care of you.  Have a ladies night, throw in some date nights, watch movies and read good books.  You are no good to your kids if you exist in a state of complete stress.  Find small ways to decompress so that you can continue to help your family through the move.
4.   Talk about your feelings:  Moving is just as much of an emotional transition for adults as it is for kids.  Keep the lines of communication open with your partner in order to avoid the build up of negative feelings and resentment that can accompany stressful situations. 
Moving is stressful no matter the circumstances.  But it can also be a wonderful family experience that can result in better times ahead.  Stay positive but be prepared for the stress.  Give your kids 6-8 weeks to transition before you start to worry.  If your child is not him/herself a few months in, seek some help.  Try to remember that you will get to the other side.  Before you know it you will be feeling settled and making the following statement, “we will NEVER do this again!”  Good luck and Happy New Year!
About Katie

Katie Hurley is a Child, Adolescent, and Family Psychotherapist and Parenting Expert in Los Angeles, CA. She works in private practice in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, writes for PBS Parents, Washington Post Parents, and the Huffington Post. She is the author of "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World" (Tarcher/Penguin, 2015) and "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" (Penguin Random House, 2018)