How to prepare the family (and yourself) for a move

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Moving is notoriously stressful even if you're going it alone. Add a family, and it can become downright traumatic. As a parent, leaving the apartment where your child came home from the hospital, or learned to walk, lost their first tooth, and crossed off plenty other important milestones can feel like abandoning a little bit of your parenting past. And for a child, the transition can feel jarring.

In my own personal experience, I've learned to leave young kids out of the home search process. They're distracting, demanding and tend toward tantrums. If at all possible, I always go look at apartments without mine in tow.

But once you find a new place (apartment or house as the case may be), there are certain tactics you can follow to make the transition to your new abode less jarring. Considering that now is prime time for families to move to the suburbs and elsewhere—with the school year about to start, if not already—we consulted a few mental health professionals for advice.

Check in with the kids.

You want your children to feel comfortable expressing their worries and concerns about the move: Are they afraid of losing touch with their old friends? Or no longer sleeping in their beloved bedroom? Once they tell you, you need to validate their feelings, explaining that you understand them, says psychologist Jeff Gardere

If they can't tell you, look out for signs that they're upset. "They may become sad and isolated and not want to take part in the move. They may cry at the doorstep  of or in the new house, or be afraid to leave the old one," says Gardere. "They may be afraid to go into certain rooms or stay out of certain rooms."

And while you should try and assuage their fears, sugarcoating it and simply saying "everything is going to be great," won't work. "Kids are like bloodhounds, they can see right through that," says Gardere.

"This is where the old saying is true, that actions speak louder than words," he says. "So model for them the happiness and excitement that you feel about the move vs. complaining and fretting about the dreaded move. They are studying your every move and will react to and copy your moods and behaviors."

When I moved a couple of years with my four-year-old daughter she looked noticeably upset when she came to see our new, empty (though bigger) apartment. It turns out she was sad that all of her toys and things weren't in the new apartment. It didn't occur to her at that age that they'd be moving with us. Asking her what what she thought of the new apartment opened up that conversation, and then I could calm her fears.

Talk clearly and truthfully—and at their level.

"The way you talk to a two-year-old is different from the way you talk to a 13-year-old, of course," says Gail Sinai, a licensed clinical social worker who specializes in parenting therapy, but either way you want to be factual and emotionally truthful. "You can say something, like 'We'll miss our old home, but we're really excited'."

Sinai suggests asking kids if they have questions and only answering the questions that are asked.

"Some kids need to be given information, but never more than that kid can manage." For a child who is shy and not likely to express their concerns verbally, "I would offer (depending upon age), small, factual and emotionally truthful statements, and stay open for questions. Some each day, rather than everything all at once. For example, on day 1, 'I/we need to tell you something. We are moving. It is in [this much time]. I am feeling x and y. I am sure you will have questions, and we can talk about them whenever they come up'."

If, for example, you're moving because one of you was laid off, you say simply, "Daddy or mommy is leaving their job, and is sad about that, and we're going to live in a new place." You don't need to give more information than that. "The instinct is to tell the whole story, but you don’t want to overwhelm the kid and you want them to understand at their pace," she explains.

To a two-year-old, she suggests: "We are changing houses.. Our new house is ______. Mommy and daddy are sad to leave our home. But we also feel happy about the new one. We will always be with you and so will your teddy bear.”

To a 13-year-old, the discussion might be more detailed: “Hey, we gotta talk. I am sure you know Dad and I have been looking for a new place, with the broker calls and whispered conversations. We found a new place, so we are moving. Its because ______. I am sure you have questions about school and other things (depending upon the type of move, right? In NYC, the kid could already have been interviewing for schools!). We’d like to show you the place and hear about what you are thinking.”

Negativity can backfire: "If you talk about the move with a resentful edge—[by saying, for instance], 'We can't stay because my boss is a jerk and I got fired'—your child will absorb this attitude. Instead, show him bright spots. Maybe you'll be near a science museum or a waterfront good for scootering," advises parenting website BabyCenter.

Don't tell them too soon.

It may go without saying, but avoid telling your kids you're moving until you're absolutely sure that you are. False starts and stops just add to anxiety, and it's much easier  to handle concrete issues than hypotheticals, in most cases.

But keep your child's personality, age and temperament in mind. "Different children have different needs in terms of when to tell them. For example, some kids need a five-minute warning at the playground that it's almost time to leave, some need a 15-minute warning, some need to just leave," says Sinai.

Allow them to make decisions.

Oftentimes, it can help to involve older children in the process of organizing, packing and decorating their new home (or, more likely, their rooms). "It pulls the energy away from [the fact] that they're leaving to where they're going," says Gardere. During a recent family move, Gardere said his children's complaints stopped once they realized they could decorate as they wanted to.

Consider a gift.

Kids appreciate the tangible, and you might want to consider giving them a housewarming present that marks the move. One idea is a book that shows photos and memories from the old home, which they can turn to when they feel sad or miss their old space. If you think your kids will appreciate it, you may want to ask them to be involved in creating the memory book themselves.

Since it's easy to make photo albums online, "it can be a great activity to take pictures of the place you're moving out of and turn it into an album called 'My Home on X Street'," says clinical psychologist Rebecca Schrag Hershberg of Little House Calls

The point, says Hershberg, "is to help the child have a concrete representation of the memories, something they can take with them. You also want to help the child (depending on their age) create a narrative, and to view the move as an event that happens in context vs. a random event."

Let them express themselves in ways other than talking.

Kids are always telling you what they need, but they don't always come out and say it, says Sinai. Some kids like to sit down and draw to express their feelings, others need to go to the park and run out some of their stress. Let them do what they need to be and "listen to what's going on underneath it all," she says. 

And there are tons of ways to say good bye in a kind or fun way, she says. "Visiting local places to say goodbye; writing a poem about the fun times; visiting favorite places again to enjoy them and remember them; making a photo log; singing bye-bye songs to every room; writing a note to the new owners about how much fun the place you are leaving is and why. And so on. I think that, so long as the events or ideas fit the family and honors the complex feelings of sorrow and future hope, it's a go."

And don't forget yourself.

"Treat yourself as kindly as you would treat your kids," says Sinai. Accept that moving is stressful and scary and answer your personal needs. If you think it'll be emotionally easier NOT to pack up the apartment (if moving is a sad thing, let's say), try and hire someone else to do it.

On the flip side, if you think it'll help to physically pack up the place yourself, do it. "Figure out what works best for you," says Sinai.


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