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Preparing Young Children For a Move

Jun27

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Hi Amy,

I’m a stay at home mom with an almost 4 year old, a one year with another on the way. My husband’s job is relocating out of state so we will be moving two-three months after baby #3 arrives. This was a big surprise and even though we love our home and have an amazing support network, we are moving because my husband also loves his job and he is the one making it possible for me to be home with the kids. Aside from the panic I feel when I think about selling our home, moving, being in temporary housing and buying a new house with a newborn and two others underfoot, I am beginning to wonder when we should tell our oldest. She will be turning four in August and we will likely be moving before Christmas. Since she is home with me most of the time she doesn’t have a lot of strong connections at her preschool but she does have close friends through our church. When is the right time to break this to her? Early, so she can adjust to the idea and possibly fret about it for months or spring it on her when we start packing up the house?

Any advice on this would great, thanks!

Oh ho ho, I should probably title this post: Preparing Your Child For a Move, What NOT To Do, Which Was: Everything Amy Did.

We were planning an in-town move last year — nothing drastic, just hoping to move up from our townhouse to a single family, maybe gain a bedroom and yard size — and I guess I let my brain get entirely, utterly consumed on the house to-do list and real estate listings and my own stress/excitement, because it never occurred to me that there was a right and wrong way to spring the news on the kids.

We did a bunch of things that, in hindsight, created a lot of stress and anxiety for them. We floated the idea out in the abstract too early, so they thought they could like, change our minds or stage some kind of WE’RE NOT MOVING coup. We made a ton of changes to our current house all at once and openly got rid of a lot of stuff, including old toys and kids clothing, which basically made them terrified that we’d go to a new house and not take any of their things. We tried to “sell” the idea of moving to them, which opened up room for arguments (“I don’t WANT MY OWN ROOM. I want the ROOM I HAVE NOW.”). Eventually, the whole topic became this Terrible Thing Mom and Dad Want To Do To Us.

When we eventually decided against moving, it was like we were conceding defeat to the kids. Fine. We’re staying. You win.

(My oldest immediately asked, “Does this mean we can get the little red chairs back?”, referring to two toddler-sized plastic chairs that nobody ever sat in, not even once, that I’d put out on the curb for someone to take. For the rest of his life, he is going to give me grief about those little red chairs, you guys. For the REST OF HIS LIFE.)

What I should have done, in retrospect, was spend a measly 10 minutes on the Internet reading columns like the one I’m writing, (and this one, and this one), and followed THAT advice. I would have kept my mouth shut about moving until we were really, really, REALLY sure, and then the conversation should have been a real, sit-down, matter-of-fact conversation about it, rather than letting them overhear grown-up discussions. This is happening, here are a few reasons why, please ask us your questions and we’ll do our best to answer and reassure you. I should have hit the bookstore and bought a bunch of children’s books about moving, I should have sat with my preschooler and acted out a move with his dollhouses. I should have talked about creating a memento box/book about our current house and — even more importantly — respected their love and attachment to the house more, rather than basically talking about all the reasons I was over it and wanted to leave it.

So the one linked article recommends telling children your daughter’s age about a month before.  Doing it too early will just allow fears and anxiety to build. (Plus she’s going to have a new sibling to adjust to first, and you want to keep these two changes separate from each other so she’s not blaming the move on the baby.) But that still depends on your packing schedule and when you expect the For Sale sign to show up in the yard, so take “month” as a loose recommendation. Don’t tell her now, but also don’t wait too long, especially if the topic is going dominate your conversations. Definitely act out the moving process with toys, read her books, show her pictures of where you’ll be going. And above all, LISTEN to her and don’t overwhelm her with too much information that she won’t really understand (i.e. “we can write letters to all your friends!” when she 1) doesn’t write, and 2) probably has no idea what mailing letters even is, except maybe how you write to Santa but still never see him or hear back from him I’M SO CONFUSED MOM.).

And recognize that this move and all this change WILL be stressful. For you and for her. I mean, my lands, woman. I would buy you so much wine if you weren’t pregnant right now, because that sounds NUTS. But there’s only so much you can do to about that aspect of it, so make sure she knows that it’s okay for her to feel sad or angry or scared. (Watch the “oh, don’t be silly, of course all your toys will come with us” talk that brushes her feelings away as silly or annoying, when really she’s trying to sort out the disconnect between toys coming WITH her vs. this whole “putting toys in boxes on a big scary truck” thing.) Do more reading post-move. Expect some regressions, either sleep or potty or tantrums. Lots of hugs, cuddles and listening. Remind yourself that in the end, though, kids are resilient little creatures.

And FINALLY, the most useful part of this whole column: Commenters who have Been There and Done That! Engage! Activate! Tell us what helped, what didn’t, and what you would do the same or differently!

About the author

Amalah

http://www.amalah.com
Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy's daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it's pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.


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15 Responses to “Preparing Young Children For a Move”

  1. EmilyHG Jun 27 at 5:03 pm Reply Reply

    So… my family moved to a new state with a three-year old and a one-month old a little over a year ago.

    We told the older child that I’d gotten a new job about three months before the move because we were selling our house and he would’ve picked up on it anyway.

    Looking back, I think we did two things well. 1. We visited the new city, new preschool, and new playgrounds so that my son knew where we were going. We took a bunch of pictures so we could talk about it as a real place. 2. We unpacked his toys first. It was hard to not do dishes first or anything, but he was SO relieved to see his toys again!

    Overall it was stressful, but fine. It will be ok. You’ll still all have each other, and you’ll be fine.

    • MR Jun 27 at 6:17 pm Reply Reply

      Unpacking his toys first was brilliant! Not only because he was relieved to see them again, but because then he had something to play with while you try to unpack the dishes and such.
      OP, if you have a play tent or something, like that, make it one of the things you can unpack first too. You can put that in an empty room (or one that just has boxes), and they can play and run around and whatever while you unpack. My friend’s family moved in to their house in the middle of winter while their kids were almost 2 and 3. She had no living room furniture (they had to buy it) and vaulted ceilings, so she unpacked a smallish bouncehouse someone had given them in her living room and let the kids play in the bouncehouse for weeks. It was great because it was pretty cold to play outside. You might think about doing something like that with a spare room for a while, in case where you are moving is going to be, well, winter.

  2. Amy Jun 27 at 5:49 pm Reply Reply

    Although I have never moved with my children, I moved many times as a child since my family is military. One thing my parents ALWAYS did was make sure my sister and l’s beds were set up, complete with sheets and blankets, that first night. No matter how late or if their own bed had made it off of transport, no one went to bed until the kids beds were set up. Looking back, it was a comfort to know my bed was still the same even if nothing else was familiar. Good luck!

  3. Kaycee in Texas Jun 28 at 1:53 am Reply Reply

    We moved a couple of times when my kids were young. We told them a couple of weeks in advance, got some kid books on the subject, and it all went pretty smooth. I do have one story that is a warning on what not to do though. When I was 4 years old we moved to the town where my grandparents lived. We then stayed with them for a couple of months while my parents house hunted. The family lore says that when we were finally moving into the new house, I confided in my grandmother that I wasn’t going to go with my parents, I was going to stay at her house and sleep in the little bed I had there. I told her that I knew this because we had not brought my bed from the old house when we moved out. Unbeknownst to me, my parents were getting me a new bedroom suite, doing my new bedroom up in pink, the whole shebang. They thought it would be fun to make it all a surprise for me though and had no clue that I had thought for two months that since I didn’t have my old bed, I wouldn’t be going with them. Of course, they quickly explained it all to me and reassured me. Since I was so young, I don’t remember all of this happening, but I know I never did much like that new bedroom furniture. Anyway, don’t do that.

  4. Natalie Jun 28 at 5:58 pm Reply Reply

    We moved like 10 times (several different states) when I was a kid. I cannot remember my parents ever really talking to us about it. I just remember it happening. But then again I was always the laid back one while my younger sister was always the nervous hand twister/ gut wrencher. She still freaks out about change and I still rearrange my furniture every couple months or else I feel stagnant. Maybe it has more to do with personality of the kid than anything else.

  5. J Jun 29 at 1:31 am Reply Reply

    We moved a year ago with our then almost-4-yr-old and 1-yr-old. This is what worked for us: 1.) Reading the Berenstain bears’ Moving Day book– it really helped our daughter understand what was going to happen on moving day and opened the door for conversations about why we were moving, if she’d see her friends again, etc. 2.) Like others recommended, I also set up our kids beds first (so they could sleep in them the first night) and had toys at the ready so they could play with something familiar right away, while the truck was being unloaded. My daughter helped pack (and then unpack) her toys, which she loved doing. 3.) My dad helped us move, as my husband had to work through it all…. I HIGHLY recommend having a trusted family member or friend help, if at all possible– We have moved so much it feels like we’re pros sometimes, but it really helped to be able to pass the kids off to my dad and be able to concentrate on last-minute packing and supervising our movers. My dad took the kids out for treats the morning the truck arrived, which my daughter still talks about, and for a “let’s go explore the new neighborhood!” walk when we all arrived at the new place. 4.) We didn’t do this (ran out of time!), but a friend made a simple scavenger hunt to do with her kids (2 & 5yrs) in their new town– e.g. Find our mailbox! Find the nearest park and go down the slide! Find the grocery store and buy a snack! She said it really helped them all get comfortable in the new town & was a fun activity to do right off the bat. Good luck!

  6. Carolyn Jun 29 at 12:54 pm Reply Reply

    My best friend married a man in the Air Force, and they have moved almost once a year for the last 4 years or so. So my experience isn’t personal, but the story that stuck with me was when they were preparing to move shortly after their second child was born, and their older child tearfully asked if the baby was going to get to come with them to the new house or if he had to stay at the old one :( It must be so confusing to not understand things like that! So I think acting out moving scenarios would be brilliant, so you could demonstrate that all the people in the house (and hopefully all the items, too. Maybe you could do all the purging/throwing away separate from packing up and moving?) will get on a truck and go to the new house and then all get off the truck into the same place again. No baby left behind :)

  7. Susan:) Jun 30 at 2:34 am Reply Reply

    We moved about a year and a half ago, and the kids were 4 and a half and almost three at that time. We started packing a couple of months beforehand and I guess that’s when we told them. I read them the Berenstain Bears Moving Day and a couple other books about moving. We made sure they knew that all their toys and things were coming too. We were only moving a few miles away to a new neighborhood, so they got to visit the new house beforehand, got to pick out the paint color for their new room and see it progress.

    It really depends on the kid, how they will react. The older one didn’t really seem to care much, she had her family and her toys and her same bed, so it was all good for her. The younger one tends to get more attached to things and also resists change more, so she was a bit more reluctant about moving and would still talk about the old house afterwards. Even a year later, she’d bring it up and we explained it wasn’t our house anymore, that this house is ours now. This is the kid who still wanted her crib back after a year of being in a bed, who complained bitterly about her new sandbox replacing the old one, even though the old one was smaller and broken. She just had a harder time adjusting to changes. So I guess if your kids are like that, just be extra reassuring about whatever they’re worried about.

  8. Christina Jun 30 at 11:58 am Reply Reply

    I love the idea of acting it out with toys! We moved to a different state with our 3 year old and 1 year old almost a year ago. We had told our oldest that it was a possibility, which was maybe a no-no, but it seemed to help him be a little less confused when it became official, about two months before the actual move. Then he had to know because there was all this house stuff and preparation going on that he needed a reason for.

    We visited all of our favorite places and friends and took pictures, and we talked and talked about how our things would be travelling to our new home, just like us, and would all be there when we moved in.The kids went house hunting with us so he got to see the new house and then he frequently asked to look at pictures of it between then and the move. We packed a box of favorite toys and books that we kept in our car with us when we moved. This also meant they had things to play with while everything else was packed up and put in the moving van, and to play with before our things came back out of the moving van. And as has already been suggested, the first things to be unpacked and set up were the kids toys and rooms, which we set up exactly the way they were in our old house.

    Good luck! It will be stressful, but try to look at it as an adventure so your kids can pick up on feelings of excitement. Just keep visualizing being in your new home with everything unpacked and everyone basically settled, and know that you will get there.

  9. Blythe Jul 01 at 12:11 pm Reply Reply

    Did full change management when we moved last year with my then almost 3 y.o.  During the transition I made sure my son came with me to look at new houses, and asked him if he liked things he was already showing interest in (ohh do you like that staircase you are running up and down, isn’t that cool, would you like one like that in our NEW house???).  One of the things he had done was assign ownership to our previous house (mommy’s house) so we talked up the new house as kiddo’s house.  

    We let him play in the empty house a bit while we got ready to move (funnest house ever) and then the first night we slept at the new house we made sure his room was set up as close to the way it was in the old house as possible (same furniture, same linens, same toys, no boxes in his room, etc.) so that he would feel comfortable.  The rest of the house was trashed, but his room was a bastion of calm.  And we set up a TV watching space.  So all his important stuff and his access to electronic joy were all in HIS new house.  The day-care was a harder transition, but we just talked it up as his big(ger) boy school.

    A year later and he is still calling it his house and he loves it.  He asked once or twice about the old house, but I just said we let new people live in it, and he was good.

  10. KR Jul 01 at 5:19 pm Reply Reply

    We just moved this spring with a 2 1/2 year old and a 9 month old.  We had several months between knowing we were moving and actually doing it, so we talked about it a lot (with a big emphasis on how mommy is going and daddy is going and josie is going and annie is going and the doggies are going and all your toys are going WE’RE ALL GOING TOGETHER…) and got a couple of books (“Bella and Stella Come Home”) was a big hit) about moving, which helped us all talk about it more easily (I confess, I cried when reading the moving books a few times!).  

    The particulars of our move meant that I was able to leave with the kids the day before the movers arrived (my husband stayed behind to supervise), so they didn’t have to watch all of our stuff leaving the house with strange men.  We stayed with relatives for a week, which gave my husband a few days to move in – especially the girls’ room! – so that they moved into a slightly less chaotic new place.  Then we got to go exploring in the new house and the toddler was SO EXCITED to find all of her stuff in her new room. 

    Nothing earth shattering, but it worked for us.

  11. Tami Jul 02 at 12:50 pm Reply Reply

    I think I moved around 15 times from the time I was school aged until adulthood. Lots of those were in early childhood and I distinctly remember that my mom (single mother) always, always had our rooms set up and ready for the first night in the new house. Usually by the time we woke up on the first whole day in the new house she had the kitchen in a semblance of order as well. I don’t know how she did it but in 24 hours she could make a house into our home. We didn’t ever really talk about it much until it was imminent though and we got to ‘help’ pack our toys. Putting them into boxes yourself vs coming and seeing your room cleaned out feels different for some reason – or at least that’s what worked with us! I have 2 brothers and we are all 2 1/2 years apart (if that helps) Good Luck to you!

  12. SarahB Jul 03 at 10:16 am Reply Reply

    We moved with our almost two-year-old last summer. He came with us to open houses, without I think much knowing what it was about, and once we were under contract we started talking up our “new house” with a lot of excitement. We were moving from an apartment to a house, so we talked about space and a yard.

    We visited the house with him about a week before we moved in and told him it was our new house and showed him his room. I’ll never forget how he stepped out into the backyard and did a slow circle in wonder looking around at all the trees, and I got to tell him it was ours. And then he knew right away where his room was when we got there, especially as the movers had put his crib in there.

    He kept going to his daycare through the day of the move itself, which helped. His opinion of the packed up apartment the day before was “Uh-oh! Big mess!” My parents came out to help for about a week right after we moved in, and that helped a lot too.

    Honestly, the worst part of the whole thing was starting the new daycare. The house part was pretty much fine.

  13. Moxy Jul 03 at 3:10 pm Reply Reply

    We moved to a new state about a year ago with our almost 3 year old. Our was also an employer-related relocation so we had about 2 months notice ourselves and chose to tell her right away. Which help explain why we suddenly rearranged all the furniture and cleaned up all the toys to get the house on the market. I was able to take some time off between jobs to spend time with her saying good-bye ot our friends and neighborhood and then getting her acclimated to the new house and school. We read the Bearstein Bears Moving Day many times! And talked a lot about the move, which would bring us closer to grandparents and cousins, which helped “sell” it for her. We lived in temporary housing for 3 months, so there was no room of hers to set up right away but she just slept with us (we’d been co-sleeping since she was little), which was comforting for her.

    One thing I was caught off guard by was the day the movers showed up, they were early and my daughter and I were at the kitchen table finishing up breakfast. When they started to pack up the other chairs at the table, she got really scared that they were going to pack her up too! 

    It was a huge change for all of us, but she’s handled it well. One thing that helped but surprised me, was going back to visit our previous town to see friends again and our old house about 7 months after the move. After that trip, she talked a lot less about how much she missed our old place, perhaps something about seeing that life there had moved on too, that things were not the same as when we’d left, I am not really sure.

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