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