This weekend is three months since we moved to Freiburg, Germany as an American family. The number one question I’m asked is how our little one is handling the change. To which I’m always tempted to respond with, “What change do you mean?” The truth is, our second grader hasn’t had much of a normal anything since Kindergarten when the world shut down. While we are sensitive to this move, it’s only highlighting how much this generation of children have endured.
Helping children navigate change is so important to how they form stories around it. Did this life altering event happen to me or for me?
To get some tips on moving with kids or helping them navigate change with kids in general, I turned to Amanda Robinson, LPC, a children’s therapist in Austin, Texas. Amanda not only has a thriving practice specializing in play therapy, but she also keeps up some great online resources for parents, such as her blog, newsletter and Instagram account. Amanda is also the author of the Anger Management Skills Workbook for Kids. I’m so grateful to have this wisdom from her and happy to share with you!
Tips on Moving with Kids from a Licensed Therapist
1. How do you recommend announcing changes to children? What helps a child prepare for a big move or other change based on what you’ve seen?
Make the announcement as soon as plans are finalized in order to give them as much time as possible to process it. Validate ALL feelings that come up before, during, and after the move – including anger. Even if the circumstances are beyond your control, even if this change is going to make everyone’s lives better – anger is still a normal and appropriate feeling. Try not to take their reactions personally, even if they sting. Validation might look like, “It’s okay to be angry with me about this change. I know it’s hard. I’m here for you.”
On the other hand, little ones likely won’t react much at first, but as changes progress, they may seem really confused about what’s happening. Don’t be surprised if they repeatedly ask the same questions – they learn through repetition!
Be honest about everything that’s going to change – house, city, school, and so on, but DO try to identify some things that will stay the same. If your family is moving across town or to a nearby city, remind them that they’ll still have access to friends and favorite places. If the move is much further, you have to get a bit more creative. (For example, “We’ll still have Friday movie nights every week” or “We’ll find you a soccer team as soon as we get settled so you can keep playing.”)
Furthermore, help your children say goodbye properly. Hold going-away parties and make cards for teachers and friends. Consider helping them make a memory booklet that they can look through when they’re homesick. Take photos around town (including of your house), print them out, and glue onto paper. Let the kids be in charge of creating and organizing it – it’s more important that it feels like “theirs” than to look pretty.
2. Is there important language to use or avoid when discussing big changes in a child’s life?
In general, I recommend preparing yourself beforehand for the when/why/how questions you’ll almost certainly receive. It’s much easier to come up with answers that balance compassion and honesty when you have time to think it through.
Beyond that, avoid trying to force your child to see the “bright side” of the move. It’s painful for us to see children hurting and scared, and it’s a natural impulse to want to stress all the wonderful things they’ll experience. There IS a place for positivity here. But moving away from beloved people, places, and things is truly a big loss to grieve, and that should be respected.
In addition, please don’t play the “blame game.” Sometimes, one parent is not thrilled about the move, while another is. Both sides are valid, but those frustrations should be aired with your partner behind closed doors (and possibly with a couples therapist!), not to your kids. They deserve to see a united front so it doesn’t further add to their anxiety. If they wind up witnessing an argument, acknowledge it and provide reassurance, such as, “Mom and I feel differently about the move. Sometimes family members disagree, and that’s okay. We’ll work our big feelings out together.”
3. I feel like the hardest thing about change in our family is how it overwhelms us as parents at a time when our children need us the most. How do you recommend families talk about this? What do you recommend for families to help them be honest about everyone’s struggles without taking attention off the child’s needs?
It’s absolutely fine to talk about your own feelings about the move, as long as it’s done in an effort to establish a common ground with kids. What we don’t want is to burden children with our feelings, or make them feel like they need to minimize their own emotions in order to reduce our distress. Express your feelings succinctly (they’ll zone out if it goes on too long!) and in a way that connects with theirs. That might sound like, “I’m feeling sad about being so far away from Grandma. I know you’re going to miss her, too. It’s okay for us to feel down about this.”
Know that it’s not uncommon for kids to shut down and not want to discuss the move or changes. Sharing your hard feelings with them can actually be used as a bridge to help them open up. That might look like, “You know, I’m personally feeling a little worried about whether I’ll be able to make friends in our new city. Have you felt nervous about that, too?”
You can even turn this into a family activity. Sit at the kitchen table with art supplies and suggest that you each draw a picture of something that makes you scared/sad about the move, and something that makes you hopeful/excited. Don’t force anyone’s participation – the idea is to bond through shared feelings, and getting into a power struggle won’t help. If they want to draw a picture but not discuss it (or vice versa), that’s okay, too.
4. How do you recommend holding a boundary to behavior may be exhibiting (such as defiance) during a big change? How can we as parents hold emotional space for our children while keeping loving discipline?
I recommend using gentle limits here. Start by acknowledging where they’re coming from – the behavior itself may not be appropriate, but the feeling underneath it still deserves to be honored. You can say, “Hey, I know this is really hard. You have every right to be upset, but I’m not for speaking to like that. Let’s take a break and come back to this conversation when we’re ready.” The consequence here is removing yourself from the discussion, so make sure you don’t get pulled into an argument about it.
An important aspect of setting boundaries with children is recognizing that the underlying feeling doesn’t just disappear when we put a stop to certain behaviors. It’s not enough to say, “I get you’re mad, but you can’t hit me.” Your child is unconsciously thinking, “Okay…but I still have these tense feelings inside and I don’t know what to do with them.” Point them in the direction of appropriate alternatives, such as squeezing a pillow, ripping up a piece of paper (over the trash), or going for a quick walk outside.
5. Is there anything else you would like us to know?
Once you’ve moved to your new residence, try to re-establish your previous routine and rules as much as you possibly can. (For example, if iPads were never allowed at the dinner table before, stick to that boundary!) It’s tempting to offer lots of leeway to make them happy, but in a time of big changes, what kids need most is consistency.