Changing homes stresses children – Maarit Rivers explain how to minimise the effects
Changing homes stresses children not just adults. Its effects are often under-estimated. Changing homes may stress children like losing a close relative. It may even be harder on you and your child than illness, divorce or loss of employment.
As an adult, you concentrate on the problems. You may also feel sad and/or excited, plus a roller coaster of emotions. But changing homes stresses children because they may also feel helpless, powerless and angry about being unable to make decisions about the move. Not all children are affected alike. Some are not worried at all. Some get very excited about it. And some get become deeply upset and insecure. The reactions depend very much on the age and personality of the child.
Changing home stresses children – make the moving positive
Most of the time you move for something better. It may be an improvement from your old home or neighbourhood, or you are moving for a better job. Your child might not understand that it is for the better, and is concentrating on the scarier aspects of change. Children can be fearful and uncertain about the future.
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THERE ARE WAYS THAT YOU CAN MAKE THE MOVE LESS STRESSFUL
Because moving home stresses children, it is important to start talking to your child about it as early as possible. This helps the child to get used to the idea. Encourage the child to ask questions. They need reassuring the dog and cat are moving too. They want to know if it is hard to make new friends. They want to know if they can still play soccer, or do ballet. They want to know why they are moving at all. For a younger child, keep explanations short and simple, but repeat them often. Young children have very short concentration spans and poor retention. Welcome questions. This gives you the chance to tell more about the new place.
Give your child lots of facts and information suitable for their age group. Be honest. If possible, get your child involved by searching for the new home and new school. If you are moving further away, show pictures, search in the internet, and provide facts.
If possible, visit the new home several times before moving so the child gets familiar with it. Importantly, take a toy that the child can leave in his or her room in the new home. Explore the new neighbourhood too.
Your child will try to sense if this upheaval is something that needs to be worried about. It is important that you have your child feel that all the changes are very safe and very normal.
If your family has experienced a big change, such as divorce or death, try not to move straight after. If possible, give yourself and your child time to adjust and grieve.
BEFORE THE MOVE
Make sure that your child knows that everybody from the family is moving especially including pets (if that is the case), so that she or he does not feel that they are moving alone or being left behind. Do not for one moment assume the child truly understands this. Your child also may not understand that neighbours and friends are not moving and that they stay behind.
• Tell stories about other children moving.
• Read books about children or animals moving home.
• When you are packing boxes, make quite sure that they really do understand, that when things go into the boxes, they are not thrown away. Explain that is easier to move to the new home that way.
• Include any older child in the planning and have them help you to make lists etc. Ask your child to help you in different moving tasks, perhaps helping you to label the boxes.
• Make them understand that nothing will be lost in the move.
• Involve your child in process of moving, it is important that they feel that they are not totally powerless and helpless when moving to that new home. They need to feel that they are part of the action.
Have a ‘special box’ into which he or she can pack their most important belongings such as a Teddy, or that special blanket and favourite toys and games. Write the child’s name on the box, and have it in that child’s current room so that she can get used to packing things in boxes. Make this into a game. An older child might want to decorate their ‘special box’ by gluing on pictures, drawing and painting.
When you move, this ‘special box’ is the most important thing. The child should have in it his or her own plate, mug, cutlery and clothes. Make sure you have in the same box the child’s bedding ready with pyjamas, tooth-brush and other stuff that are used every day. DO NOT LET THE REMOVERS take this box. Have it in your car, so that it can be placed immediately in their room in the new home.
It is important to say goodbyes
A pre-school aged child might want to have a good-bye party for all of its friends. A school-aged child might need have several parties. One for school friends, one for neighbouring children, and one for the soccer or ballet group.
Before finally moving, walk through the house and garden to say goodbye to each area. It might feel silly and time consuming, but this not only helps your child have a smooth transition. It will also help you to leave behind a familiar, loved home. You might shed a tear or two. Explain to your child how you are feeling, that you are sad to leave the old home yet at the same time excited to move to the new one. This gives them a permission to have confusing feelings.
It is also important to go and say goodbye to the favourite park, playground ice cream shop and all the other special places.
ON THE DAY OF MOVING
If possible, let grandparents, relatives, or another familiar person take care of the child well away both from the home you are moving out of, but also the home you are moving into. This is because big bulky furniture lifted by big bulky removalists and children is not a good mix: it is dangerous for both. In addition, it can be quite distressing for a child to see familiar things taken away by strangers. If this is not possible, you need someone to stay with the child ALL OF THE TIME.
IN THE NEW HOME
If possible, get help to set up your new home, so that you can spend more time with your child – to explore the great new home, and garden.
Concentrate on all the familiar things, ‘here are all your toys, this is your bed, oh look mummy and daddy’s bed is in this room’. Never point out the strangeness. Set up the child’s room before doing anything else, even to pictures on the walls. It may seem tempting to get all new furniture, but now is not the time – particularly for younger children. For younger children use all the old furniture, set up if possible, much the same way as it was in the old home. Same bed, same toys, same old pictures, and same old mobiles hanging from the ceiling. That way you ensure the child has comfort and security within its own familiar place and from where it can explore the exciting new home. Let the child help unpack that special box, and put toys away in familiar places or toy boxes.
Next, but not until then, get your kitchen organised so the child knows where to get a drink or snack, where the fridge is and where all the food is.
Do not change any routine. Same regular meal times, same crockery and cutlery, just different kitchen and dining area. Same regular bath time, same toiletries, just different bathroom. Same pyjamas than before, and above all same safe bed. Have all the familiar things around to have the same regular afternoon nap and same regular time to go to sleep in the evening. Same favourite bedtime story.
Being in any new house can be unsettling for all. If possible take time off from work so that you are more available to your child. Right now, quality time is important. You probably need this too, to get the new home in order and make it to feel as home should feel.
Children thrive in continuity and familiarity. Children do not like change. Try to implement old routines and habits into your life in the new home as soon as possible. Your child will feel a bit uncomfortable, insecure, and lost. Avoid any other major changes in your child’s life during the moving period, like toilet training or changing a baby sitter. Do not go away on holiday for some time – not even family weekend trips.
Understand that it take several weeks before any child fully settles into a new home. The younger they are, the quicker it happens.
Because a young child does not understand and is not capable of expressing emotions and feelings, those emotions and feelings surface in another way – usually as stress reactions. Be tolerant and understanding. And spend more time with your child.
INFANTS AND TODDLERS
Compared with older children, few infants and toddlers have less trouble moving house. They are very closely linked in to their parents and other caregivers and it these people that represents ‘home’. They are usually content wherever they are taken – so long as they can be with their parents.
However, because they are so closely entwined with their parents, they too pick up your emotions and feelings. They react to those emotions and feelings and play them out. If a parent is stressed and irritable the child will be fussy and irritable. Your toddler is looking for information from you. You are the centre of the universe for this child, and you give the child the sense of connectedness. The child will be looking to you for information about moving and new home.
Your toddler may:
• Start sucking his or her thumb
• Wet the bed
• Regress to baby talk
• Become more clingy
Your infant and toddler will be happy wherever you are. It might have a couple of restless nights and cranky days, but after that, your child will be happy and curious and loving as he or she it has always been.
Very young children find it much easier to adjust than you may.
Infants and toddlers are great adapters. They learn new things everyday: new words, new skills, and new concepts. They thrive on newness, because everyday brings new things into the life of a small child. A new home can be just another thing to learn about and be excited about.
PRESCHOOL AGE CHILD
Preschool aged child might think that they did something that caused the need to move and the chaos and the frustration is their fault. Be reassuring and spend time with the child to confirm that it is not so.
Your preschool age child may:
• Refuse to eat
• Suffer insomnia
• Create a ‘tic’ such as twirl their hair constantly
• Become shy
• Become aggressive
SCHOOL AGE CHILD
School age child will usually be much excited about to move to new home. Yet at the same time, they feel sad to leave their friends, old home and other familiar things behind. Goodbyes do not need to be definite, maybe the child can come back to visit old friends, e-mail or keep in touch with Face Book and mobile phone, and/or by sending pictures of the new place and sending messages. Maybe friends can come and visit the new place, if the distances are not too far.
Suggest that your child makes a list of friends and relatives, and their phone numbers and addresses, so that they can keep in touch. Your child can make small cards with the new addresses and phone numbers, which they can give to friends and relatives, so that they know where the child’s home is and how to keep in touch.
Give your child a blank book in which other children and adults can draw, glue pictures and write their goodbye and good luck messages to your child.
Involve your child in decorating the new home, and if an older child wishes let him or her choose some new furniture as well. Let your child choose the colour for the new room. If their choice is too ghastly then perhaps just one wall.
The child’s biggest question will be if they like the new school and will they make new friends. Visit the new school with your child, meet the principal and teachers, and ask to be shown around. If possible visit the classroom, ask if you could say ‘hi’ to the classmates. With the younger school age child, walk around the play ground.
Check out what other activities are offered by the school or community in the new area, such as sports, clubs, band etc., so that your child can join in and make new friends quickly.
You need to consider the time when to move house. Your child needs a while to get used to the new home and surrounds, so it would be better that the child does not go to new school immediately. However, if you move in the beginning of the summer holidays, your child might have a long time alone, and start to feel bored and lonely, particularly, if there is not much opportunity to make new friends.
Your school age child may:
• Have headaches and stomach aches
• Become depressed
• Get lower marks in school
• Want to be alone
• Show anti-social behaviour such as lying or stealing
• Become aggressive
• Change their eating habits
• Have trouble concentrating
All these reactions are indicators of stress, your child might not understand what is happening, and he or she is not able to express the complicated feelings that they have.
Make sure your child have enough rest and sleep and nutritious food. Spend time with your child. Encourage the child to express his or her feelings by talking, drawing, painting and in a play, all these activities will help the child to relieve stress.
Provide as much familiarity and regularity in the daily routine as possible.
Make plans carefully and talk about them with the rest of the family. Talk about your feelings. Ask about your child’s feelings. Ask about what your child expects from the new place. Now is the time to be very open in your communication. This will improve your relationship with your child, and bring you closer together. You will also learn more about each other. After the move, you might notice that your child has become more independent. Plan and manage your own and your children’s move well, and your move to the new home will cause minimal distress.
Most of the time, good things come from change.
If you feel particularly anxious about your children adjusting, ask yourself if you are projecting your feelings and emotions onto your child. This is very necessary because it will be stressful time for you, too.
If, after a month or two the child is still distressed consider consulting a qualified child therapist. Be cautious here – not all are.
Ring to make an appointment with
© Maarit Rivers, Therapist – Church Point, NSW 2103
0417 462 115, [email protected]