For Families > Keeping Kids Healthy > Home and Family Life

When Families Move: Helping Children Adjust

by Staff of the NYU Child Study Center

Introduction: Why and How

People move for many reasons – sometimes out of choice and sometimes out of necessity – a parent’s promotion, a change in family income, a job loss or transfer, a change in the family due to loss of a parent, a divorce or re-marriage.  For military families, moving is a necessary and repeated part of life.  Moving to a new community can be an exciting but sometimes difficult event for a child and a family, depending on the reasons for the move.

The logistics of the move also influence a child's adjustment; moving across town is far less complicated than a move across the country. For many moving can be a positive experience, as it brings the opportunity to develop new friendships, pursue new interests, increase social confidence, and learn important lessons about adapting to change. Even if the move is not by choice, maintaining a positive attitude will be reassuring to the kids and they will have an easier time adjusting. Following is a guide for managing the different issues facing parents and children when they move.

Age Matters

A child's age and general personality affect how the child will deal with moving. Some children adapt easily to new situations; others may need more time to make a gradual adjustment.

  • Infants, toddlers, and preschoolers are not able to understand the meaning of the move or complex explanations. They are affected more by the reactions and availability of their caretakers. Little kids do best when things are predictable; so keeping to a routine with familiar things and people eases the transition for them. Avoid making other changes at the same time as the move, such as toilet training or transfer to a new bed, so as not to overwhelm and confuse a young child.

  • School-age children are likely to be concerned about fitting in with new peers and dealing with different academic demands. Their general personality and social style may influence their ease in adjustment. They may also be better able to tolerate the new kid jitters if a sibling will be at the same school.

  • Teens will be able to understand the nuances of the decision to move, but may also be resistant to change. At a time when they are establishing important relationships outside of the family, they may feel the move threatens their evolving identity. The move can be disruptive to the stability they have already established with a core group of friends or with an athletic or academic path they are pursuing.

  • Some children will actually thrive in the new environment depending on the circumstances of the move, an accepting peer group, and a supportive mentoring adult network.

The Moving Process

Three phases of the move—before, during, and after—and three environments—educational, social, and family—should be considered.

Before the Move

  • Timing the move is important. Parents should carefully consider their options. Certain moves may be inevitable, as when a parent loses a job, when finances are strained,  or impossible to predict, as when a parent dies. But when circumstances allow for flexibility, it is often better to postpone or avoid a move at certain transitional times, such as when a teen is a junior in high school, or immediately following a divorce. Some people find that moving mid year enables children to take the second part of the school year to adjust, while others find that starting fresh in the fall when change typically happens is easier. When timing is not ideal, options may be possible to ease the strain, such as having a high school student remain in town with a friend or relative to finish out the year. The pros and cons for all those involved must be carefully weighed, and when an older child is affected, his or her wishes should be considered.

During the Moving Process

  • It can be tempting to literally "clean house" and discard old toys and unused articles.  But this should be done gingerly; the loss of material things may overwhelm some children.  Better to help them sort out the bulk of their things once they've moved in when they can feel more in control of their new environment.

  • For young children and toddlers, put their furniture on the moving van last so that it is first to unload. This will help orient them quickly to the new surroundings.

  • Have children of all ages pack a bag of essential, favorite, "can't live without" things to keep with them at all times.

  • Try to get the children’s rooms in order before the rest of the house.

After the move—it's time to attend to school, social and family life

  • Scheduling some trips away from the new home may actually help establish the new base. It becomes the place to "come home to" and enhances the sense of a       familiar place.

  • Have children invite friends from their old neighborhood for a visit. This can help the child make decisions about what is new and fun and also helps the child get an oft-needed dose of validation from old buddies.

  • Access religious and community organizations. They can provide a ready structure of activities, contacts, and resources for the whole family. If the family was involved with similar groups before, participating in such activities in the new location can increase feelings of familiarity.

  • Encourage children to become involved in a sports team. Teams provide a ready-made group of peers on a regular basis. It becomes easier for a child to then say 'hi' and to avoid feeling like a stranger in the lunchroom. Parents can invite the team over for ice cream or pizza to help the child build new relationships. In this way parents can get to know parents of new peers.

  • A school club or group is another activity to be encouraged for children. Not only does this provide the benefit of a ready group of peers with a similar interests; it offers an adult contact for the child and for the parent as well. Most parents and children can find some type of organized, existing activity that will meet a child's needs; a child who is mechanical may do well on the technical crew of the drama club. It may be important to think beyond the traditional orchestra, soccer team, and chess club.

  • Older children and teens can also benefit from volunteer work or a job that does not interfere with their academic responsibilities. These activities can help integrate them into the community at large, provide access to new people, and increase a sense of confidence.

  • Parents should also access their own network to gain information about the local culture for themselves and their children. Especially with teens, who are more apt to be on their own without adult supervision, it is important for parents to know where teens hang out, what's safe, what pitfalls to avoid.

  • Parents should not be surprised if their child shows improvement outside of home before having a changed attitude with the family. It is important to be in contact with the school and other areas in which children or teens are involved to monitor their progress in making the transition. Children who are still sullen or angry at the parents about the move at home may in fact be making a good transition in school and showing signs of acceptance and integration. It is also vital to be aware of how children are adjusting so that parents or other adults can intervene to help a child if necessary.

  • The Internet and cell phone text messaging are a mixed blessing for children who have recently moved.  Contact with old friends helps a child stay connected to a support system and provides an outlet for talking about the new home and experiences. But, when a child spends long periods of time chatting with friends "back home" it can decrease the motivation to become involved with the new community and interfere with the adjustment to new friends.

  • Be patient, some children will dive in, develop a support network of friends, and become involved with school and activities without missing a beat. Other kids may need more time and help to feel acclimated and at ease. Providing them with new experiences in new places will help them in the future when they make decisions for themselves about where to live.

When parents are sensitive to the impact of moving on their children, they can make moving a positive experience, enhancing children's emotional growth, adaptability, self-confidence and social skills.  When the move is due to a job loss of loss of income, the move may represent many challenges for both parents and children, and seeking professional advice may prove helpful.

 

Date Published: August 4, 2009