When my husband and I decided to buy a new house at the end of last year, we spent very little time considering what the move would mean to our two daughters, who were 3 and 22 months at the time.
It was an easy decision to make the move. The new home was a seven-minute drive from our old one, our 3-year-old, Lotte, wouldn’t be switching preschools, we could still visit all of our old favorite restaurants and playgrounds (which we did, in pre-pandemic days), and the girls would be gaining a playroom as well as a built-in play area in the backyard. Plus, there would be ample opportunity for visits in the weeks before moving in, so the girls could familiarize with the house.
It felt seamless. So we were pretty surprised when, soon after we moved in, Lotte started acting out — misbehaving more than usual and crying at odd times.
As it turns out, her reaction was fairly typical for a child her age. “Children are young and new to the world, and changing a child’s ‘safe space’ is a big deal,” said Maureen Healy, author of “The Emotionally Healthy Child.” “They may feel a number of challenging emotions during a move, from anger and anxiety to fear and sadness. Most boys and girls rely on structure, routine and their regular environment to feel safe in what is often a very uncertain world.”
Despite the current pandemic, millions of people are still moving. In fact, approximately one in five U.S. adults moved due to the pandemic, or know someone who did, according to the Pew Research Center. And whether you’re moving just a few miles — as we were — or a few states, whatever your child might be feeling about the move is perfectly normal, and there are some things parents can do to better prepare them.
Understanding how children often act out so that you can respond appropriately is a start. For example, children might show stress by saying their bodies hurt, that they have headaches or their tummies are sore, or by reverting to baby talk, said Beth Peters, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and founder of Dandelion Psychology, in Arvada, Colo., which provides therapy services for children, adults and families. But the more likely way a young child will react to stress is through nonverbal signs, like thumb sucking, bed wetting or becoming extra clingy.
Establishing some systems and routines before, during and after a move can help kids — and parents — better handle the situation.
Pre-paving the move
To the extent that it’s possible, involve your child as much as you can in the family discussions leading up to a move, said David Black, Ph.D., pediatric neuropsychologist and director of the Center for Assessment and Treatment. Let them know why you’re moving — because Mommy got a new job, or because we needed more space — and validate any feelings they have. Dr. Black suggests saying something like, “I know this is hard, I can see you’re really sad to miss your house, and I’ll miss it, too.”
After that, try “pre-paving” the path for your child’s moving experience. Bring your child with you on walk-throughs — or at least show them photos on Google Earth — and explain what’s going to be different in the new home (“You’ll have a bigger room!”) and what will be the same (“But you’ll still have the same bed!”)
Dr. Peters also suggests asking your child what they need to feel safe or comfortable in a new space, or what makes their current house or room feel like home for them. Use their responses to create a comfort bag that the child can carry with them on the day of the move, so you don’t have to dig around for their attachment animal or to find the glow-in-the-dark stickers they can’t sleep without.
For school-aged children, doing a video or picture tour of a new environment — like a new school — can help. “In the developmental psychology world, we call these social stories,” said Dr. Black. “I think a brief Zoom call with a new teacher can also help, especially if the teacher is skilled at providing a developmentally appropriate connection for the child.”
Healy also recommends having your child keep something special — like their bedroom doorknob — to remember their old home. Or use children’s picture books like “The Berenstain Bears’ Moving Day,” with a moral about moving houses, to help your child preview the actual experience.
Handling moving day
The actual day of a move is often stressful for parents and young kids alike. Dr. Black said to remember to give yourself a little extra time and space. “If you’re Type A, schedule in a meltdown [for your child] so you have room for your child to be upset, and when that happens, you’ll have allowed yourself the time to be there for them, instead of having to move things quickly along.”
For families in a two-parent household, Dr. Peters suggests switching off, having one parent in charge of the children during the actual day while the other handles the move. For single parents, calling in backup can be a lifeline.
In the wake of Covid-19, how this person watches your child might look a little different from before. For example, if your child is fairly independent — 3½ or above — and is able to communicate their needs verbally, go to the bathroom and isn’t high risk for dangerous behaviors, having a neighbor watch them in the backyard over the fence or on FaceTime — with the ability to call you quickly for anything important — is one option. Otherwise, “a lot of families right now are pairing up with other families and quarantining together,” said Dr. Peters. (This is actually referred to as a “quarantine pod,” and people across the country are doing it.)
If your move is two or more weeks out, and you’d like to have someone else there in person to help watch your children, consider asking a close friend or relative to quarantine themselves in order to help out for that particular day.
It also helps to create a proper, ritualized farewell for the day, including which neighbors you’ll say goodbye to, and what photos or other objects you can take for memories. “The shortest route to the brain is the nose, so olfactory responses can be really intense for children,” said Dr. Peters. To create strong sensory input and positive effect, create a memory box with things like dirt and leaves from your old house that your child can revisit later.
Once you arrive at your new house, “the more control you can give your kid the better,” said Dr. Peters. Allow them to pick the first meal you have, and have them help you unpack a special box you set aside for their room. “This way they feel like it’s not an unpredictable world and they’re just a leaf on the wind,” she added.
Planning for future success
When we started to notice that our daughter was missing her old home — requesting to go back and asking how long we would be staying at the new place — my sister, a school counselor, suggested that we get her something new to the home, like a pet, just asshe was new to the home. We made a big deal about heading to the pet store where Lotte picked out a fish, a blue Betta she named Elsa. Elsa now lives on Lotte’s dresser, and Lotte tells everyone she meets about her new best friend.
Healy also recommends clear and consistent messaging. Help kids focus on the positives of the move (“It’s so fun to have a playroom full of your most favorite things!”), while letting them know it’s OK to feel sad and confused.
Connect with the people they love — old neighbors, friends and family — as soon as possible when you’re in the new house, said Dr. Peters. Dr. Black suggests also planning to connect to the new community quickly, even if social distancing means those connections look a little different these days. For example, “the most successful play dates, we have found, include bike riding, because being outdoors, the movement itself and bicycles all naturally mitigate risk, without it feeling weird to kids,” he said.
Perhaps the biggest thing you can do to help your child cope with a move is to spend more time with them. “Extra time with parents can really help,” said Dr. Black. “More bedtime stories, more family dinners, more time together on weekends, more snuggling in bed in the morning — whatever it is, more face time.”
Like most things regarding parenting, individual support should be tailored to your particular kid, especially if your child has special needs. Seek expert support if your child is seriously acting out or showing signs of significant difficulty — like trouble sleeping, refusal to eat or bed wetting — a month or so after the move.
For Lotte’s part, it’s now seven months after our move and she’s mostly come to terms with the fact that we have a new home, and, thankfully, Grace, her younger sister, never seemed to mind. From time to time she still asks about the old house, but it’s usually in a fondly reminiscent kind of way. And that’s good news for everyone involved. The last thing I want to do right now is get a dog.