Moving House with Children (Without the Trauma)


I have a confession to make: I was an Air Force Brat.

Big Brother in Grandad's Air Force Hat

Back when I was a kid, my Dad was posted every 2 years (on average), which meant that we packed up and moved house, suburb, city, state and occasionally country on a regular basis. By the time I was 10 years old, I’d moved six times. By the time my Dad retired from the Air Force when I was 16, I’d lived in a total of ten places — including 2 countries, 5 states, and 7 cities (we lived in some more than once).

You may think that, after all this relocating as a child, I would have been happy to settle down and put down roots at that point. Well. If that’s the case, you probably didn’t spend the first 16 years of your life moving around. It gets to be a habit. You get bored after a while. Your feet start itching. And then you start weighing up the pros and cons of moving, even if only to the next suburb. 

At the time of writing this, I am 35 years old. I have lived in 26 different houses. Twenty-six. That means that I’ve moved house, on average, every 16 months of my life.

Having children didn’t slow me down, either.

Big Brother is almost 5, and has lived in 4 different houses — albeit, all within the same city region. He’s moved house, on average, every 18 months of his life.

We haven’t moved since Baby was born, but then he’s only 11 months old at the moment. So I’m not promising that things will be different for him.

As you can see, I’ve had plenty of experience with moving house, both as a child and with a child. So when Tracy (@nystoopmama) tweeted asking for any advice on moving with kids — specifically on how to make the process less terrifying for her 3 1/2-year-old — I figured that I’d throw my advice into the ring. Because with all this experience, you’d think I’d have learned something.

 And if you’ve got any other ideas, tips, or suggestions, please leave them in the comments. 

1. Give plenty of notice — but not too much.

It’s important not to surprise a child at the last minute. This is a Big Scary Thing. Your child needs time to prepare. But, on the other hand, too much notice is a Bad Thing.

If you’ve got a three year-old and you tell him you’re moving in six months, that’s 1/6th of his life. That would be like telling a 30 year-old that you’re moving house in 5 years. Initially, it’s a bit exciting and a bit scary. But excitement fades much quicker than fear, and soon you’ve got a child crying himself to sleep every night because he’s terrified of what’s going to happen.

While different children will react differently (depending on personality, experience, etc), I go with the following rule of thumb:

  • Minimum notice: 1 week per year old
  • Maximum notice: 1 month per year old
 So for a 3-year-old, you’d want to tell them the news at least 3 weeks before the big day and no more than 3 months before the big day. Whereas for a 12-year-old, you’d give a minimum of 3 months notice and a maximum of a year’s notice. 

2. Explain the Reasons and the Process as well as the End Result.

Children like to know what things mean, how things work, and why things happen. (That’s why they ask “why” at least 700 million gazillion times a day.) If they’re not given the hows and the whys, they make them up all by themselves. Sometimes that’s great. Sometimes that’s funny. But in the case of a Big Scary Thing, that just makes your experience much harder.

If your entire explanation consists of: Isn’t it great, we’re going to be moving house! … Well, it doesn’t really explain what’s happening or why. You may as well have just told them that you’re going to live on Mars, or that you aren’t going to let them play with their friends anymore.

It’s important that your child understands both the why and the how, and that you tell them as honestly as possible — as appropriate for their age. For the “why”, an older child is more likely to figure it out for herself, but a younger child will need help.Whatever your reasons, try to break it down to something your child will understand. (Even if it’s just: Daddy’s work says we have to move.) 

For example:

  • Do you remember how we had to buy you new shoes when you grew out of your ones? Your old shoes weren’t very comfortable anymore, were they? How did they feel? This house is starting to feel a bit tight too, isn’t it? We hardly have any room for all of your toys, and there’s nowhere for you to run around and play. How did it feel to wear nice, new shoes that fit? How do you think that will feel to live in a new house where everything fits and there’s lots of room to run and play?

As for the “how”, spell out the process in simple steps so it’s not so overwhelming. The amount of detail you give will depend on your child, but I’ve found that a more sensitive child usually needs more information, whereas a “go with the flow” child just wants the major points. 

3. Where possible, show don’t tell.

If at all possible, take your child to the new house and show him where he’s going to be living. A picture is worth a thousand words, and an experience is worth a thousand pictures.

I'm Going to Live Here!

If you’re moving far away, or it’s not possible for other reasons, show him pictures of your new house online. Or of the local area. Or of his new school. If you’re moving across the country and don’t know where you’ll be living (like me as a kid), then at least get out some maps and look at those together.

All of this helps your child to feel that he has a bit more understanding and control of what’s happening around him.

4. Focus on the positives. 

My Very Own Tree!

Find two or three positives that you’re going to focus on, and talk about them a LOT. Any more than that and it’s going to sound like everything is changing, and that makes the move seem even more scary. Pick your key items and talk them up. Is it the big yard? Or living closer to Grandma? Or a room that she doesn’t have to share with her sister? Or a cubby house? Or enough room for a pet? Or the excitement of living in the city?

Try to pick the things that you are personally excited about, because that way you don’t have to fake it.

5. …but remember to validate the negatives.

I’ve moved house 25 times in my life, but each time is still fraught with stress. How much will it cost? Will we like the new place? Will I still see my old friends? Is this really a good idea? What if I hate it there? What if the removalists crash their truck into a petrol station and all our things go up in a huge Hollywood-esque explosion? What if I forget to organise electricity? Or to forward the mail? Or to order enough boxes? Or to pack something?

All those worries are normal. If you told someone your fears and they answered you with, “But you’ll be closer to work!” you’d want to hit them. Or drink another bottle of wine. 

Your child has her own fears, many of which may be different to yours. Where will my dolly sleep? Will I find good hiding places for hide and seek? What if the cat hates it there? Will I ever see my teacher again?

If you ignore those fears and concentrate solely on the positives, your child will probably not hit you. Or drink alcohol. But she may withdraw into herself, or refuse to talk about the move, or start crying herself to sleep.

Validate her fears. Talk about the things she’s worried about. Tell her it’s okay that she loves your current house, and it’s okay that she’s a bit scared — you’re a bit scared too. But if you’re both brave together, it will be okay. And then go back to talking about the positives.

Note: Some children (especially the really sensitive ones) find it difficult to talk about their fears. If you sense that your child is upset or worried but she isn’t telling you what’s on her mind, talk to her about how her toys are feeling.

For example:

  • Moving house is very exciting, but it can seem a bit scary sometimes, too. I wonder if Teddy’s feeling a bit scared. What do you think? What do you think Teddy’s scared about the most? 

6. Explain what comes and what stays

As adults, we know which parts of our world are “house” and which parts are “stuff”. We know that the “house” stays here, and the “stuff” goes with us. But children aren’t as aware of the distinction — especially if they’ve never moved house before (that they remember). So make sure to explain which bits are coming and which bits are staying.

The first time Big Brother was old enough to realise we were moving house, he was two years old. I talked to him about what was happening, and he understood but was quite worried and scared. When we started talking about fears, he said he didn’t have any. But then he blurted out, “But who am I going to live with?”

In his mind, Mummy and Daddy were part of “home”. So going to a new home meant leaving Mummy and Daddy behind. (You should have seen the number of tears I shed over that misunderstanding!)

Not Without My Toys!

At the time of the next move, he was 3 1/2 years old. This time he was pretty cool with the whole family was moving. (I was 6 months pregnant with Baby at the time.) But his concern this time was just as serious. “But I don’t want to leave my toys behind!” 

When you’re explaining the process, make sure to talk about exactly what comes and what doesn’t. Are you taking the curtains? The bookcases? The books? The toys? His favourite chair? Be specific, because what’s obvious to us isn’t always obvious to them.

7. Remember: It’s supposed to be fun!

As we all know, actions speak louder than words. If you keep talking about how great it’s going to be, and then your child finds you crying, or acting stressed, or arguing with your partner in hushed tones, or yelling more often, the gig will be up. If you’re upset and stressed, your child will be upset and stressed.

Share your worries with your child (at an age appropriate level). Tell her if you’re feeling a little bit overwhelmed today. Or frustrated. Or scared. Then give her a hug and ask how she’s feeling. And then find a way to make the day’s work fun.

A Better Use for Moving Boxes


Filed under Life With Kids, Opinion

15 responses to “Moving House with Children (Without the Trauma)

  1. Thanks! I will be using this advice hopefully soon!!

  2. critters and crayons

    This is a great post! I was a military brat and then served for 10 years- our new jobs keep us moving now, too- I don’t love the process but moving a lot as a child made my sisters and me adaptable, I think. The worst result was that, until recent years, I viewed friendships as similarly transient. Facebook and Blogging, for all their criticisms, has actually allowed me to regain friendships I would have lost or to nurture new ones (like this one!)- I want to be cautious with my children as we move so that they learn the value of maintaining long-term connections since they enrich our lives so much. It’s so cute your son thought he was going to be living on his own…. haha! Kids are so cute! Great post, Jo!!!!

    • I totally agree on both the pros and the cons of moving around. My brother, sister and I all developed the ability to be flexible and adaptable early on — it’s either adapt or perish! — but it does mean that I don’t know anyone from my childhood. My sister and I were talking recently about how we’ve never really felt that we “belonged” anywhere. We don’t have a “home” to go back to (my parents now live in a city where none of us have ever lived) and the innocent questions “where are you from originally?” or “where did you grow up?” leave us stammering and stuttering. What we most missed out on was a sense of community. And I still tend to think that friendships are things that come and go — I don’t get overly attached to people, because you never know how long you’re going to spend together. (On the other hand, I’m very good at forging close bonds very quickly.)

      We’ve committed to living within the one city while our children are at school, so that they get to grow up with that sense of community and long-term friendships. We’ve specifically chosen a school for them that encourages those things. I’m hoping that if we are still moving house when I get itchy feet, but they’ve got the stability of a consistent school/friendship base, we can find some kind of happy medium.

  3. Crista

    Ah, the military life…ain’t it grand? lol My daughter is 15 and we became a military family when she was 3. She’s lived in 6 states, 6 cities, 8 houses. Once she hit elementary school, we were able to explain that “we will live here for A grade and B grade and then we will have to move”. She understood things in terms of a school year or a birthday time frame. Now that she’s in high school, things have a changed a bit.

    When we moved to our current location 4 years ago (hubby has had 3 duty stations in these 4 years and kiddo and I stayed put), she actually helped me house hunt. Hubby was already gone on a mission and I couldn’t enroll her in school without a signed lease and she was only 11 years old so house hunting we did together.

    Starting at age 10, she unpacks her own room. She gets to put things where she wants them. I do the furniture arrangement, with consultation now that she’s a teen, and she does the rest. A treat we have included since her first move is changing her bedroom theme with each move. It gives her something to control, something to change of her own accord, and something to look forward to and plan and dream about. We do the theme change with linens and decor to keep the costs down. She’s had a “school room” where it was decorated like a classroom, a pink/girly room, a big cats themed room, and here she’s on an Oriental theme that has stayed with us through our three houses here and it has evolved a bit in each house.

    The important thing is to include them in the process in whatever manner you think they can handle. I house hunt online, we share what we find with her, we talk options, I try to find silver linings even if I don’t like where we’re going, etc. She loves our lifestyle and, frankly, after four years here is itching to leave. I get the itch after 2 years so 4 years in one spot is HARD!!! But, we’ve kept her stabilized to get her through high school, so we’ll see what happens next!!

    Go Army!!

    • Your ideas and suggestions are fabulous, Crista. I love the idea of letting your daughter choose new decorations when you move, to add to the excitement factor (and of keeping the costs down by making it soft furnishings only!). You’re so right about including them in the process in the best way for them and you.

      I think kids have the most difficulty with moving when they’re left out of the process. It’s hard enough feeling helpless and out of control when you’re an adult, let alone when you’re a child and you’re having your whole world changed around you.

  4. FanTASTIC advice. I’ve always tried to make it as adventurous and exciting as possible and let Noah have as much input as he can.

    • Thanks, Kim. I can imagine that moving house with you at the helm would be an exciting adventure. 🙂 If you’ve got any more tips or ideas, feel free to add them. I haven’t moved house with an older child (yet) so you might have some different insights.

  5. Love the photo of Big Brother in the moving box. I have done my share of moving (Ireland to Hong Kong to Ireland to Germany to Austria to Dublin and finally to where we live now) but we seem to have managed to stay put since the kids started school.
    Some things are still in boxes (after 10 years – OMG!) as in my head we are about to pack up and move out any day now. Great post.

    • You know, for people like us (with itchy feet), having that sense of “I could pack and move any time” is a good thing. It feels like you’re still foot-loose and fancy-free, rather than bogged down in mundanity. So keeping things in boxes (even for 10 years!) is possibly the surest way to avoid moving at all!

  6. This is really great advice. We moved frequently when I was young and I have the itch all the time, still, but my husband likes to stay in one place. It’s challenging. We are, however, busting out of our current house and will be moving in the near future so this post is super helpful!

    • Glad it’s helpful to yoU! I have a similar situation with my husband. He only moved a couple of times as a child, and both were in traumatic circumstances (once when his Dad walked out on the family taking all their money with him, and once when the bank foreclosed on their house), so moving had very negative connotations for him. I have to be honest — I used all of these techniques on him as well the first few times. I really focused on making the move stress-free and fun for him. These days, eleven years and eight moves later, he’s much more open to the idea.

      Good luck with your house hunting and moving!

  7. mohit poonia

    it was amazing experience like you will got new friends to do friendship , new aunties and uncles , your new home , your new room , new bathroom , and new environment and lots of fun.

  8. I hope I will use these advices soon, I am expecting a call from my real estate agent and will have to be really fast with the packing process.

  9. Jenn

    I really liked your perspective on everything. It seemed very honest. My daughter and I have moved houses six times in six years and three states, I just wrapped up ten years in the Marine Corps. I am from Hawaii and the last two years were spent there. I got out of the Marine Corps, we visited L.A. and loved it also. She was the first to ask about the plausibility of moving here. The goal I…think… possibly…? Is to eventual have property in both locations and go between. She just turned 6 yesterday and loves the idea because it really is the best of a lot of worlds. Her birth father lives in Indiana and they are developing a better relationship and there is also family on the mainland. Hawaii is home and has some very unique and special qualities that will never not be missed. She is just starting Kindergarten (Hawaii’s cut off is before her birthday) so we don’t have that gauge of what is going to fit her best (homeschool or not). I don’t know there are a lot of elements to this type of thing. We are just trying to iron out some thoughts to develop our goals so we kinda know which way to execute. What do you think?

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