Helping kids with big changes – moving house, school or country

Posted by Samantha on June 10, 2013 in Change, Communication, Feelings, Moving house |
Fully settled in...

Fully settled in…

How should we prepare children for big moves – like a new school, or a new house, or living in a new country?

There’s a lot of advice out there: keep children involved in the process, get them to imagine the change, have them keep a diary of all the steps along the way, talk with them about it.

I’m not sure that many parents have either the time or inclination to do the sorts of exercises that are recommended nowadays for helping children to cope with change.

In the past, parents didn’t talk much about this big stuff with children.  A child could even lose a parent and no one really talked with them about it.  Nowadays we know that becoming emotionally literate requires us to talk about our emotional lives.  But you don’t have to be a therapist for your kids – you just have to be open and honest with them.

I recall that my parents talked freely about the exciting and positive aspects of moving house when I was 11.  But we didn’t talk about my sadness.  And they didn’t talk about their own sadness, if they were sad, about leaving our home.

I think my parents intuitively knew that focusing on the positive would be beneficial for us.  Of course, it would have been great if they could have acknowledged sadness as well.  But to be fair to them, I was the kind of kid – and became the kind of adult – who focused more on the exciting future, than on what I was leaving behind.  I hid my sadness.  That was a strategy that served me reasonably well for a long time.

All children (and adults) vary in the degree to which they look forward or back when facing change.  There are temperamental differences too governing whether we focus more on the scariness or the excitement of an impending move.  If your family is facing a move, try to be mindful of how each member of the family deals with change.

Children are normally sad about what they are leaving behind (the losses).  But they may be relieved or happy as well.  And they are usually scared and excited (two feelings which actually feel very similar) about what is coming in the future.  And they will certainly have learned to feel and express these emotions to varying degrees.

My family moved last year.  We kept our children involved in the process.  But not too much.  The metaphor I like is that of a democracy: everyone’s voice matters, but you have to be over 18 to vote!

I had my children write a list of all the things they would like in their ideal new home.  I wrote one too.  We cut out a map of our area, marked our school with an ‘X’ and then drew our ideal circle (5 mins away) and our realistic circle (20 mins) for where we wanted our new house to be.

I didn’t do this because I have too little to do with my days, because I actually follow the advice from the “help children cope with change” books, or because I am Kirsty Allsopp’s worst nightmare client.

I did it with an ulterior motive.  My daughter could pester for Britain (we work very hard on keeping her natural persistence in check).  I did it so that she wouldn’t pester us to buy every house we looked at.  And it worked!

For example, my children were very keen that our new home should have a tree house with a slide to get out of it.  Believe it or not, we actually found a house with such an unlikely item.  But it was missing plenty of other things from our lists.  So our children found it easy not to get attached to the idea of living there despite the awesome tree house.

As our moving date got closer and closer, we talked and cried and remembered and laughed a lot about all the things we had done in the home we were leaving.  We talked about what we loved and what we would miss.  I held them and I hugged them and I listened and I talked.  I wouldn’t say I was being a therapist – I was just being a parent.  I didn’t lead the whole process either.  I was just open to when they brought things up.  And sometimes I brought it up myself because it was where I was in that moment.

The day we found our new house, I surprised myself by bawling crying.  It was a bittersweet moment.  While I was really excited to have found what would be our new home, finding it meant we really were leaving our old home.  I loved our old house and part of me was devastated to be leaving it.  I let the tears come.  And then I watched them go.  I have moved a lot of times in my life and I’d never felt like this before.  I realised it was because I’d never let myself feel like this before.

But we didn’t just move.  Our home was scheduled for demolition.

We had to talk about that too.  I let my kids talk and I answered their questions as honestly and simply as I could.

When it comes to moving, I’d really recommend that you don’t make promises you can’t keep about friends.  My kids stayed in the same school.  But if yours are facing a school move as well as a house move, by all means tell them they can stay in touch with or keep seeing friends.  But maybe resist the urge to say things that imply they’ll be able to keep in touch with all their friends for all their life!

We can aim to strike a balance between not taking away their hope, and easing them gently into the idea that friendships ebb and flow.  I know a lot of women who give themselves a hard time about not keeping up with childhood friends as much as they “should”.

On the day they started to knock down our old house (my next door neighbour texted me to let me know it had begun – I was ever so grateful!), I went and stood watching for a while.  And I just felt the sadness of my loss.  I drove by on a regular basis to watch the house coming down, and with the kids too, we have kept an occasional eye on the new ones going up.

On our most recent drive-by I noticed that for me the process is almost over – the site is no longer “our house”.

I reckon the kids have moved on too.

So what am I saying about how to prepare kids for big changes like moving house, or school or country?  Be present.  Be real.

I’d like to finish by quoting a few pertinent lines from the brilliant Brene Brown’s Wholehearted Parenting Manifesto taken from her book Daring Greatly:

“Together we will cry and face fear and grief.  I will want to take away your pain, but instead I will sit with you and teach you how to feel it…..

I will not teach or love or show you anything perfectly, but I will let you see me, and I will always hold sacred the gift of seeing you.  Truly, deeply seeing you.”


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