Family, Kids & Relationships

Moving with kids: How to help kids prepare and adapt

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If your family is moving to a new house, a new city/town, or another state, you may be nervous about how kids will cope with all of the changes. Parents who work in certain career fields, such as in the military, might face the challenge of moving with kids more frequently than others.

Moving can be overwhelming for many children, as they don’t have a lot of control over the situation. They have to get used to new routines and new environments, and in many cases make new friends while missing old ones.

However, there are things you can do to make the experience more positive for them, and to help them feel supported throughout the relocation process and beyond.

Prepare kids before the move

It’s important to start discussing the move before you start packing up to relocate. “It’s much easier to deal with something that’s expected than it is to be shocked and unprepared for a stressor,” explained Jamie Howard, PhD, a trauma expert and clinical advisor to the Child Mind Institute.

First, be prepared for big feelings about the move — some kids will be angry, sad, or scared after you tell them. Other kids might not express that to you quite as directly, but will be moody, clingy, or withdrawn at some point after hearing the news. Don’t get defensive or take it personally if they’re not happy about the decision to move. Instead, assure kids that any feelings are okay to have, and that you’ll love and support them no matter what.

Discuss what moving will look like, including the basic logistics. Young children might not understand what moving to a new house or new town means, and might even worry that they won’t be coming with you. For toddlers and preschoolers, acting out how the move will work with stuffed animals or dolls can help a lot!

Get some kids’ books about moving, as well as books about the place you’re moving to, and read and discuss them together. This will help you learn more together, and tune into any questions or worries your kids may have.

For older kids, help them plan how they want to tell their friends about the move. Prepare them for the fact that some friends will find out from others, so they should tell the most important people one on one or in a small group first.

Discuss the reasons for the move openly, so that kids will feel prepared to answer questions from their friends, classmates, and teachers — and also so that they’ll feel like they can talk to you about any of the hard parts. If divorce or separation, or moving in with a new partner, are factors in the decision to move, be sure to address those big changes directly as well.

If logistically possible, take kids on a tour of the new house and new town before you move. Spend a few hours exploring the parks and playgrounds, or whatever they’re interested in. Go to the local library and see what activities are going on in the community.

Get kids involved in the moving process

Kids can be involved in the moving process in many different ways that can help them feel a greater sense of ownership and control:

  • Have them research the new location, from the weather patterns, to the restaurants and parks nearby, to what the school building and sports fields will look like. Let them be an “expert” in something related to the new location.
  • If you visit the new location, have them help you navigate using a map — or for younger kids, make a scavenger hunt for them to find familiar things like mailboxes, basketball hoops, or dogs.
  • Enlist their help in packing and labeling boxes, and keeping things organized. Make sure young kids know that their toys and books will be coming with you, and let them decorate the box.
  • If possible, let them choose which things they want to let go of, and what they want to keep. Forcing them to get rid of too many things might make them feel worse about the move.
  • Have them set aside a bag full of comforting items that they can have with them while traveling to the new location — that way, they’ll have them right away when they arrive.
  • Have them document the moving process through photos, videos, or drawings. You can even make your own scrapbook or picture book about your family moving story!

When you arrive at the new location

No matter how exhausted you may be, it’s important to try to establish some routines, traditions, and joyful memories right away to give kids a sense of security in the new house. For example, you can:

  • Stick to regular mealtime and bedtime routines, even if the house seems to be in chaos.
  • When unpacking, prioritize setting up the kids’ rooms first, and finding comforting objects such as stuffed animals, favorite books, or family photos.
  • Celebrate the new home with a fun hot cocoa/ice cream party or movie/game night.
  • Make getting to school fun/interesting — for younger kids, make up a song or story about the new route; or for older kids, have them make a video or drawing of the new route.

To give kids a greater sense of control, you can plan to let kids have some say over how their new lives are arranged. For instance:

  • Have them choose their own room, and how they’ll decorate it.
  • Have them help set up common spaces and organize toys and books how they like.
  • Let them help choose paint colors and furniture.
  • Enlist their help in figuring out the best route and mode of transportation to school.
  • Let them choose a new extracurricular activity that they’re excited about.
  • Give the responsibility of taking care of a new plant or section of the yard/garden.

After settling in to your new home

Keep up the lines of communication well after the actual move, as it can take kids many months to adjust, and they’ll need your support at different stages.

It’s perfectly normal for kids — even adults! — to go through a period of grief if they miss their old life. You can encourage them to express their sadness in a variety of ways, such as:

  • Listen to sad songs together, and look at old pictures together.
  • Write in a family journal, or continue to add pictures or thoughts to your family moving story.
  • Say goodbye to old spots, and the old house — either through pictures or by visiting.
  • Go around at the dinner table to say what everyone misses about the old house or town. You can also add what everyone appreciates about the new place!
  • Help them set up Zoom calls with old friends, but also talk openly with them about how friendships and relationships change over time.
  • Keep a pulse on the whole family’s mental health by adding some mindfulness activities to your routine.

For a while, parents will have to find the tricky balance of validating how kids are feeling, while encouraging them to embrace their new location. It is possible to hold both at once, but it can be draining, so make sure you are taking care of your own needs as well!

Joanna Eng is a staff writer and digital content specialist at ParentsTogether. She lives with her wife and two kids in New York, where she loves to hike, try new foods, and check out way too many books from the library.