A mother of young children asked:
We’re going to be moving to another house in a few weeks, and whenever I try to talk to our kids about it, they tell me they don’t want to move. Or they give me blank stares like they don’t know what I’m talking about. We showed them the new place a couple of times, but they didn’t seem impressed. What’s their problem?
Moving from one home to another, whether halfway around the world or merely to another part of town, is upsetting – literally as well as emotionally. Everything must be packed, moved, changed.
Children’s sense of security depends in part on familiar surroundings and schedules – on predictability. They may not be able to understand why their parents think a move is a good idea.
This would be our best guess about how everyone’s feeling these days:
By day you may be excited about the newness of it all, and may enjoy telling friends about the charms and advantages of your new place. But in the middle of the night, you wake up overwhelmed at all the work you’re going to have to do to get your family safely settled again. You worry about finding the time to plaster and paint; you fret about finances; you remember the tulips you planted last fall that you won’t see bloom this spring; you grow wistful remembering bringing a small infant or two home from the hospital to this very room. You are, in fact, feeling anxious, unsettled and a little sad.
Now, your children:
You don’t say how old they are, but for a preschooler, your middle-of-the-night feelings are his round-the-clock ones.
Of course, he’s a child and he often goes off to play or watch television – appearing to have forgotten about the whole thing. But when he hears you talking about the move or watches you haul in the boxes and start emptying the bookcase, he grows anxious, unsettled and more than a little sad. And, of course, intuitive little sponge that he is, he picks up your anxiety from you.
An older child would be worried about leaving his friends, maybe even his school, if that’s going to be required of him. He’s not going to be very interested in the family’s newly-acquired granite counter tops.
What to do:
To the degree that it is possible, let them make some small choices – since they didn’t make that big one.
Let them decide some of the furniture arrangements, where the toys will go, the placement of their beds, the TV. For sure enlist their help with the move itself, including the packing. Help them keep track of their most precious belongings, making them the last things to go on the van – or better yet, bringing them in the family car.
For the little ones, write a book.
Illustrate it with your own drawings or cut pictures from magazines, showing everyone in the family – including the pets – moving safely from one home to the next. Use it to help illustrate the sequence of events involved.
Or get a children’s book about moving from the library, and read it together several times. Maybe you get those blank stares from your younger child because he really doesn’t know what you’re talking about exactly. He’s never moved before; what does he know about moving vans and U-Hauls?
What to say:
Since you’re anxious yourself about this move, probably the last thing you want to hear about is your child’s anxiety. His sad and even angry feelings just make you feel guilty. So you are tempted to do all you can to jolly him out of his unhappiness, or change the subject when he asks questions like, “Why can’t we stay here?”
But all the same, here are some of the things you might say:
“Of course you’re sad to be leaving the place where we live in now. Of course you’re going to miss the kids across the street. Of course you’re going to miss your apple tree; and the bedroom ceiling that we put glow-in-the-dark stars on; and the window seat where you could watch for the school bus. Moving is tough!”
What not to say – at least not at first:
“You’re going to love our new place much more than the old one. Did you see how big your and your brother’s new bedroom is?You’ll make new friends in no time. And this Saturday I’m going to buy you those curtains that we saw at Target with the whole solar system on them. Much better than stars on the ceiling. Wouldn’t they look great in your new bedroom? Etc. Etc. Etc.”
In other words, let your children be sad. Or mad. Tell them you understand – because you do; you remember those middle-of-the-night worries – and let them cry or rage or sulk. Don’t tell them how they ought to feel or try to cheer them up. Give them time, and lots of empathy.
You’re not going to be able to buy their happiness with new curtains, that’s for sure. But slowly, because you are the main source of their security, chances are they will grow to love the new place as your gradually make it a home.