Introduction: why and how

Moving to a new community can be an exciting but sometimes difficult event for a child and a family, depending on the circumstances For example, different issues are raised if the move is due to a parent's promotion rather than divorce, death, or change of family income. Similarly, a child's ability to cope is different if the family is in the military and moving is a necessary and repeated part of life compared to a family moving only once. The logistics of the move also influence a child's adjustment; moving across town is far less complicated than a move across the country. For many moving is a positive experience, as it brings the opportunity to develop new friendships, pursue new interests, increase social confidence, and learn important lessons about adapting to change. If parents are positive about the move, children will have an easier time adjusting. Following is a guide for managing the different issues facing parents and children when they move.

Age Matters

A child's age and general personality affect how the child will deal with moving. Some children adapt easily to new situations; others may need more time to make a gradual adjustment.

  • Infants, toddlers, and preschoolers are not able to comprehend the meaning of the move or complex explanations. They are affected more by the reactions and availability of their caretakers. They do best when things are predictable; thus keeping to a routine with familiar things and people eases the transition for them. Avoid making other changes at the same time as the move, such as toilet training or transfer to a new bed, so as not to overwhelm and confuse a young child.
  • Children in kindergarten or first grade may be vulnerable because they are in the process of separating from their parents and adjusting to new authority figures and social relationships. They may temporarily regress to behaviors typical of an earlier stage and become more dependent on their parents.
  • School-age children are likely to be concerned about fitting in with new peers and dealing with different academic demands. Their general personality and social style may influence their ease in adjustment. They may also be better able to tolerate the new kid jitters if a sibling will be at the same school.
  • Teens will be able to understand the nuances of the decision to move, but may also be resistant to change. At a time when they are establishing important relationships outside of the family, they may feel the move threatens their evolving identity. Thus the move can be disruptive to the stability they have already established with a core group of friends or with an athletic or academic path they are pursuing.
  • Some children will actually thrive in the new environment depending on the circumstances of the move, an accepting peer group, and a supportive mentoring adult network.  Some children may actually thrive in the new environment depending on the circumstances of the move, an accepting peer group, and a supportive mentoring adult network.

The Moving Process

Three phases of the move - before, during, and after - and three environments - educational, social, and family - should be considered.

Before the Move

  • Timing the move is important. Parents should carefully consider their options when faced with the decision to move. Certain moves may be inevitable, as when a parent must transfer jobs, or impossible to predict, as when a parent dies. But when circumstances allow for flexibility, it is often better to postpone or avoid a move at certain transitional times, such as when a teen is a junior in high school, or immediately following a divorce. Some people find that moving mid year enables children to take the second part of the school year to adjust, while others find that starting fresh in the fall when change typically happens is easier. When timing is not ideal, options may be possible to ease the strain, such as having a high school student remain in town with a friend or relative to finish out the year. The pros and cons for all those involved must be carefully weighed, and when an older child is affected, the child's wishes should be considered.
  • Talk about the decision. Explain the reason for the move in language appropriate to the child's age. If the move is for the better, explain how it will affect the children for the better. If the move will mean difficult changes, parents must be honest about things that will and will not change. For older children, include them, if possible, in any decision making. Although children may not have veto power about the move, allow them control over certain areas of their life such as the color of their new bedroom or the choice of after-school activities.
  • Of course, whenever possible, children should visit the new home and town before the move. If this is not possible, obtaining a video or having friends or a real estate agent send pictures via the Internet will help children visualize their new home, make the decision real, and help them plan the living arrangements.
  • Older children may enjoy using the Internet to research their new home. Map Quest and visitor's bureau information sites can get them involved, interested, and looking forward to self-designed adventures.
  • It can be helpful to plan the first visit back home before setting out. Children will be less likely to feel alone if they are able to look forward to getting back together with friends.
  • Be prepared for difficult reactions and be careful not to succumb to bribes or threats. Children are often naturally upset and angry about a move. Parents should not sugar coat or minimize their reactions, nor should they avoid a child's negativity. Some leniency may creep in - extra time spent on the computer or watching TV - however, it is important to set limits on behavior and acting out, but it is also important to accept their sadness.
  • For children with special needs , parents should plan ahead for referrals and resources. Maintaining consistent services and proactively setting up systems for children with educational, medical, or mental health needs can ease the transition, help maintain progress, and deal with problems resulting from the move. Current tutors, teachers, mental health and medical professionals should be consulted and asked for recommendations and help in obtaining services in the new location.

During the Moving Process

  • It can be tempting to literally "clean house" when moving. But this should be done gingerly with respect to children's possessions. Discarding old toys or unused items may be warranted at the time of a move, but the loss of material things may overwhelm some children. Better to help them sort out the bulk of their things once they've moved in when they can feel more in control of their new environment.
  • For young children and toddlers, put their furniture on the moving van last so that it is first to unload. This will help orient them quickly to the new surroundings.
  • Have children of all ages pack a bag of essential, favorite, "can't live without" things to keep with them at all times.

After the move - it's time to attend to school, social and family life

  • Scheduling some trips away from the new home may actually help establish the new base. It becomes the place to "come home to" and enhances the sense of familiar place that is needed.
  • Have children invite friends from their old hometown for a visit. This can help the child make decisions about what is new and fun and give the child a chance to "show off" the new place. It also helps the child get an oft-needed dose of validation from old buddies.
  • Access religious and community organizations. They can provide a ready structure of activities, contacts, and resources for the whole family. If the family was involved with similar groups before, participating in such activities in the new location can increase feelings of familiarity.
  • Encourage children to become involved in a sports team. Teams provide a ready-made group of peers on a regular basis. It becomes easier for a child to then say 'hi' and to avoid feeling like a stranger in the lunchroom. Parents can invite the team over for ice cream or pizza to help the child build new relationships. In this way parents can get to know parents of new peers.
  • A school club or group is another activity to be encouraged for children. Not only does this provide the benefit of a ready group of peers with a similar interests; it offers an adult contact for the child and for the parent as well. Most parents and children can find some type of organized, existing activity that will meet a child's needs; a child who is mechanical may do well on the technical crew of the drama club. It may be important to think beyond the traditional orchestra, soccer team, and chess club.
  • Older children and teens can also benefit from volunteer work or a job that does not interfere with their academic responsibilities. These activities can help integrate them into the community at large, provide access to new people, and increase a sense of confidence.
  • Parents should also access their own network to gain information about the local culture for themselves and their children. Especially with teens, who are more apt to be on their own without adult supervision, it is important for parents to know where teens hang out, what's safe, what pitfalls to avoid.
  • Parents should not be surprised if their child shows improvement outside of home before having a changed attitude with the family. It is important to be in contact with the school and other areas in which children or teens are involved to monitor their progress in making the transition. Children who are still sullen or angry at the parents about the move at home may in fact be making a good transition in school and showing signs of acceptance and integration. It is also vital to be aware of how children are adjusting so that parents or other adults can intervene to help a child if necessary.
  • The Internet is a mixed blessing for children in such situations. E-mail to far away friends helps a child stay connected to a support system and provides an outlet for talking about the new home and experiences. But, when a child spends long periods of time chatting with friends "back home" it can decrease the motivation to become involved with the new community and interfere with the adjustment to new friends.
  • Be patient, some children will dive in, develop a support network of friends, and become involved with school and activities without missing a beat. Other kids may need more time and help to feel acclimated and at ease. Providing them with new experiences in new places will help them in the future when they make decisions for themselves about where to live.

When parents are sensitive to the impact of moving on their children, they can make moving a positive experience, enhancing children's emotional growth, adaptability, self-confidence and social skills.

References and related books

Battles, Hassles, Tantrums and Tears: Strategies for Coping with Conflict and Making Peace at Home, S. Beekman and J. Holmes, 1993, Hearst Books

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About the NYU Child Study Center

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