This week's question about how to help your kids cope with moving comes from the very funny humor blogger— Kristine of Wait in the Van. Question is serious, of course.

BabyboxDear Dr. B,

I have two boys: one is just over four and the other, just over two. We have lived in the same area of New York since they were born, which means they've always been close to Grandma, Poppy, and friends/family. However, my husband is a Marine and we're all moving in a few months to Texas.

Aside from the move itself, I'm concerned about how this will affect my boys–specifically my eldest. They both see Grandma at least once a week and are very attached to their Poppy. In fact, they tell me that they miss them even if it's only been a few days since our last visit. (::heart breaking::) So, my question is: what should I be doing to ease this transition, and what type of behavior can I expect?

So far, I've told them both that we'll be moving to "a new house". They also know that all our stuff (and the cats!) will be coming with us. We plan to Skype once we're down there. However, one day, my eldest told me we were going to "bring Grandma, too!", and I had to explain that she'd be staying at her house. He was clearly disappointed by this, but I'm sure he doesn't grasp the true concept of distance and how infrequently we'll be seeing them. I tell him it's okay to feel sad. Then I usually remind him that we'll all be together and that it will also be an exciting adventure. I wonder if the sadness will grow once we're in our new home, and what else I should be doing to help him through this upheaval.

Thanks for your help!

Dear Kristine,

Young children have the easiest time adjusting to moving because they do not yet understand the changes involved and therefore cannot anticipate what moving will be like – good or bad. Instead, they look to parents for reassurance and guidance to determine whether to perceive the move as positive or negative.

Children are very sensitive to their parents’ emotions, especially during times of change. Therefore, it is critical for parents of young children to manage their own stress, anxiety and feelings about moving so that children do not pick up on subtle cues that moving may be unpleasant, scary, or bad.

However, despite attempts to make moving sound fun and exciting, children may ask difficult questions and express mixed feelings about the move, especially if it involves significant changes such as moving away from family and friends who visit often.

At such times, allow your children to express mixed emotions and provide them with reassurance and understanding, but also emphasize the positive aspects of the move. Reassure them that even though some things will be different (such as their room or neighborhood), some things will be better after the move too (e.g., new friends, playground, fun places to go in the area, etc.).

Even if your child is unhappy about the move, remain positive. Your positive attitude will go a long way in how well your child will ultimately adjust to the move.

Below are some tips that will help prepare your child for moving and make the transition easier:

Keep explanations clear and simple: Children don’t need lengthy explanations about why the family is moving. Stick to the facts and provide developmentally appropriate information in a positive light. Give a simple statement about why you are moving, what moving means, and what the new home and location will be like.

Use pictures to familiarize your children with the new area: Young children often need to see things to understand them. Put together some pictures of the new house, location, and places in the neighborhood that your family will probably visit regularly. Show them to your children with excitement and point out the similarities and differences between their current area and the new area. Do your research and make sure to talk about places that your child will like in the new area such as special parks, a nearby pool, or playground.

Create a social story: Put together a simple story about the move using pictures. Include what will happen before, during, and after the move. PowerPoint is a great tool for doing this because you can easily insert text and real pictures. Print one slide per page to create your own book or view the story with your child on the computer.

Prepare your children using books or through play: Read age appropriate books about moving (e.g., We're Moving! By Heather Maisner or The Berenstain Bears' Moving Day by Stan Berenstain and Jan Berenstain). Buy some toys that can by used to “act out” the move such as a toy lego family, toy trucks, a plane, and doll house furniture (e.g. LEGO DUPLO Doll Family Set and Maple Landmark Classics Moving Truck). Show your child through play what moving will be like, discuss and ask your child how the pretend family feels, and emphasize how fun and exciting moving is for a family.

Packing: Be careful when packing your children’s things. Young children are more likely to think that you are throwing their toys away when you put them in boxes. Make sure to explain that you are keeping their toys safe in the boxes so that they can play with them when they get to their new home. You may also want to pack a smaller bag or box with your children’s prized possessions for them to take with them on the plane or in the car during the move.

Avoid changes: Try to keep things the same as much as possible to ease the transition and maintain a sense of familiarity and consistency. If possible, keep the same furniture and try to set up the room or nursery in the same way. Keep your children’s routines and schedules the same to the extent possible. Avoid making any big changes around the move such as potty training or moving from a crib to a bed.

Moving Day: Try to arrange for your children to stay with a relative, friend, or sitter on moving day so that they do not get unnecessarily anxious by seeing all of the changes firsthand. When you arrive at the new home, try to arrange the children’s rooms first so that they can feel a sense of comfort in familiar surroundings right away.

Coping with Distant Relatives: Reassure your children that although Grandma and Poppy (and other relatives) may live further away from you now, they will still be able to see them and speak to them everyday. Incorporate important caregivers and relatives into your daily routine and make them feel present. Create a picture album with their pictures to look at and have your children speak to them on the phone or on Skype on a regular basis. You can also buy a recordable book so Grandma and Poppy can record themselves reading to them and they can listen to them each day (e.g., Hallmark "All The Ways I Love You" Recordable Book).

If you prepare your children for the move and stay positive, your children will likely adjust to the move more easily and may even be excited for it; however, many children do exhibit challenging behavior in response to significant transitions. The most common reactions to significant changes in younger children is regression to immature behaviors such as thumb sucking, wetting the bed, baby talk, clinging to parents, difficulty sleeping or eating, and an increase in attention seeking behaviors (positive and negative).

If your children exhibit any of these behaviors, it is important to be sensitive to their needs, recognize that their behavior is normal given the circumstance, and try to understand what their behavior is trying to communicate. Most of the time challenging behavior is temporary and will decrease in a few weeks or months after the move.

It is also important to note that not all changes that coincide with moving are negative. Moving can bring families closer together and can help children develop resilience as they learn to cope and adjust to a stressful time for the family.

Good luck with the move!
Dr. B

Dr. B has a PHD in school psychology and specializes in early childhood development. If you have a question for Dr. B, please email me by clicking here.