Rachel Biale, MSW, is a Berkeley-based parenting consultant who has been working with parents of very young children for more than 25 years. Send questions through her Facebook page: Parenting Counseling by Rachel Biale or via firstname.lastname@example.org.
We’re moving this summer for new jobs and getting closer to most of our family, but we’re leaving Grandma and many friends. We’ll drive across country as the movers depart, hopefully arriving after our stuff does. How should we prepare our kids, ages 10, 5 and 2? — Bye-bye in Berkeley
Dear Bye-bye: Moving is a difficult experience for most kids, each age presenting its own challenges. With the excitement, hubbub and sheer labor involved, parents easily underestimate how hard it is. Your kids’ ages mean you’ll face different issues with each one, yet all have a common thread: “How dare you uproot me from my home and friends?”
Adults can’t quite grasp that, for very small kids, a place they have not been to doesn’t exist (maps, photos and videos notwithstanding). In addition, kids’ attachment to their surroundings is likely to focus on things you’re oblivious to: a crooked curbstone by the driveway, a shiny door handle, a scrawny bush under their window.
With fewer life experiences (even though they’ve probably traveled, seen and tasted more than you did at their age), kids have few skills to cope with moving. And seeing it on an iPad is not like being there.
In preparing your kids, start with the toddler, knowing that everything that’s true for him or her is also true for the siblings, albeit in more sophisticated, less obvious ways. The younger the child, the smaller the circle of people and things to consider, but don’t underestimate your little one’s attachments. When my son was almost 2, we moved to Los Angeles for a year. He adjusted easily, but when we entered our home one year later, he ran around in a frenzy shouting, “I am home! I am home!” He remembered not only every object, but he recalled the feeling of being home.
Here’s the plan for the 2- and 5-year-old:
1. Photograph the kids’ beds (better yet, take them!), rooms (hang the pictures and decorations the same way in the new house), yard, street, preschool, family and friends. Make a book with each child, pasting in the pictures and writing descriptions.
2. Explain “moving” with pictures of a moving truck, boxes and details of packing, shipping and unpacking.
3. Let each child pack some boxes with you, then prepare a bag with his or her most precious things to take on the drive.
4. Two weeks before the move, add pages to their book in this order:
Write down their feelings about moving (even if they make you wince) and echo them empathically, encouraging your children to draw these emotions. Offer reassurance about new things and new friends, but go easy — this is not where they’re at.
Put in your new address and paste photos of town landmarks, your street (use Google Earth), the house and kids’ rooms (if possible) and their new school.
Add names and photos of everyone you’re leaving behind and attendant feelings, followed by those of people who will now be closer. Record your 5-year-old’s fantasies about her new friends and encourage her to make illustrations.
Take the book to preschool for friends and teachers to write or draw in. The teacher may initiate making a “farewell book,” but if not, you can suggest it.
Include a trip diary.
Once you’ve arrived, add the new home to the book. If your child resists, she’s showing you she’s still mourning the loss of her old home. Don’t rush her! Over several weeks, add pages about new places and friends. The last page is for your child’s “Advice for other kids who have to move.”
Now for the 10-year-old:
On the surface, it’s easier. He comprehends so much more. But prepare for an avalanche of feelings — a preview of adolescent angst and sulking. Obviously, provide any information he wants, but remember he’ll get more out of doing his own research and setting up social media to stay in touch with his friends. Indirect ways to address his feelings may work best. He’d likely reject the idea of making a book, so ask him to help his sister or brother. He’ll get just as much out of it as they do.
Finally, ask Grandma to visit two months after your move — and come back to visit a few months later. Visiting before six months pass may hinder your kids’ adjustment, but waiting may make their connections to people and places fade too much for the visit to be meaningful.