Moving from one house to another is seldom easy and fun for adults and it can be especially troubling for the children. But if parents deal with their children's concerns and needs thoughtfully, much of that distress and discomfort can be avoided. Children see moves differently than their parents do.
Most often, a change in houses or communities heralds an important step forward for the adult members of the family. The family moves because Dad or Mom has a great new job or a promotion in reward for years of hard work. They move because financial success has allowed the purchase of a bigger and nicer house in a more upscale neighborhood. They move because they can finally afford seperate bedrooms for each child and perhaps a pool in the back yard.
In the 21st century, mobile and hard striving people typically live in a house for about four years and then move on as their careers or fortunes permit. That short time span is only a small percentage of the life-to-date for a 30 or 40 year old, but the same four years is half the life-time of an 8 year old, and it includes almost all the years he or she can remember. To a parent, this house may be only the place they have lived recently. They think of it as a way station on the road of life. To kids, however, it may be the only home they have ever really known. This is their house, the place they feel safe and comfortable and thoroughly at home.
A house is much more than a roof and walls to a child. It is the center of his or her universe. A move threatens to take that safety net away and leave something totally strange in its place. The familiar friends, schools, shops and theaters, the streets, trees and parks - all will no longer exist for them. Everything soon will be strange, and they will live in someone else's world. The impact of a move on a typical child starts about the time he or she first hears that Dad has accepted a promotion, and often continues for about a year, until the new house becomes home, and memories of the previous place fade.
It's not usually necessary to announce this big change to children immediately, although they must hear about it from you before someone else breaks the news. Most teenagers see themselves as adult members of the family, and will probably feel they have been left out if they don't hear everything from the first day. But it is probably not a good idea to tell toddlers and preschoolers until they have to know. There is no point in making them worry far in advance. Be sure to announce the move in a totally positive way. You might say how proud you are that Daddy's company has chosen him out of many other employees to manage a new office in Seattle. Talk about what a beautiful city Seattle is, how good the schools are and how nice the people are.
Tell truthful but positive stories about how nice the new house will be. Ask them what the favorite things are in their lives now, and then try to make them happen in the new home. If the new home is too far away to allow a visit by the entire family after it has been selected, show the children pictures of it from every angle. Videotape it, if you can. Emphasize the positive views and be sure to include pictures of each child's new room. Try to name the house with some romantic description like "Oak Hill" for the big trees and the sloping lawn. Sugar coating will help, but since children can quickly see the negative sides of most situations, every parent must plan to deal with their children's worries, fears and sorrows. The children will leave behind friends they may have known all their lives. They will leave behind their sports teams, their clubs and their piano teachers. They will have to start over in a new place, making friends, becoming accepted and fitting into different groups.
Younger children need protection from fear of the unknown. Listen carefully to their concerns, and respond quickly to allay their apprehensions. It would be normal, for instance, for a young child to worry that his or her toy box and shelf of stuffed animals might be left behind. Identify those anxieties and correct them. Probably the best tactic is to get the children actively involved in the whole process. Don't just promise to let them decorate their own rooms, for example. Take them to the paint store and let them bring home color swatches. Shop for bed spreads and towels and carpets. They must leave old friends behind, so find ways to make that parting almost pleasant. Plan a going-away party and let them invite their own guests. Take pictures of everyone and make a photo album. If a child is old enough, send him or her out with a roll of film in the camera and the assignment to photograph the views they will want to remember.
Some relationships will be extremely difficult to break and these will demand careful, thoughtful, personalized planning by both parents. How, for instance, do you move a 17-year-old 1,000 miles from her steady boyfriend? Expect that your children may be even more distressed after the move than they were before it. The new house will not be beautiful the night after the moving van leaves, or for months after. The furniture won't fit the rooms. The curtains won't be up, and every spot on the floor will be covered with half-unpacked cartons. The children won't know anyone at school and, if you move during the summer, they may have little opportunity to meet anyone their age. You may be faced with many more problems in your new community than the kids, but remember you can handle them more easily. They will need your help, and you should plan to give them the support they need.
After the move, give each of them a long distance telephone call allowance so they can keep in touch with the people back home who matter the most to them. Buy a stack of picture postcards that show positive views of your new community, and encourage them to write good news messages to the friends and relatives they left behind. To make new friends, make sure the children don't vegetate in front of the television. Get them outside, where neighbors pass by. Have them pass out fliers to do baby-sitting or car washing. Encourage them to participate in as many school activities as they can handle. Get them on sports teams and into clubs. If they - and you - aren't making new friends fast enough, throw a housewarming party for yourselves and invite all the adults and children on the block.
If serious emotional or attitudinal problems arise, however, help is usually available and probably should be sought. Ask a teacher for help. Consider professional counseling. Don't let a serious problem slide. Remember that the newness will wear off. New friends will become old friends and best friends. This new house may become the family homestead your grandchildren will visit every holiday season. There will be some discomfort for a while, but in the long run, everyone in the family will be happier than ever!
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