Written by Nick Adler
The first move of my childhood was a doozy. My parents bought their first Santa Barbara home when I was in early elementary school. The official plan was to wait a couple months before moving out of our apartment and into the new house. Then one morning, Mom dropped me and my siblings off at school and came home to find workers re-roofing our apartment complex. Dust, dirt and tar paper fragments were falling between ceiling slats and landing all over the furniture. Even worse, there was a forecast of rain for that night and no sign the roofers would be finished in time. Mom sprang into action. She opened the yellow pages and hunted up a local moving company available for a same-day move. By that afternoon, she had shifted all the kitchen and bedroom furniture to the new house, ready for us to spend our first night. She picked us kids up from school and — surprise! — drove us to the new house. She was sure we would be as thrilled as she was to be settling into our new home. Imagine her horror when we all burst into tears instead!
Moving is a challenging transition for kids of any age, but a few common moving mistakes like the one my mom made can quickly take it from challenge to fiasco. Read on to learn what to avoid and how to prepare for a successful move with kids — a move your whole family will remember fondly.
Why did moving into a beautiful new house leave the kids in my family sobbing instead of delighted? My mother’s fatal error was not giving us enough time to prepare emotionally. Moving to a new house should never come as a surprise, and parents should not underestimate the amount of time a child will need to come to terms with the move. Put yourself in the child’s shoes for a moment. Kids moving for the first time will be leaving the only home they can remember living in. Kids who have already moved may feel helplessness and frustration at being uprooted again. In all cases, children are likely to be grieving the loss of familiar places and faces, and the fact that they have no say in the matter can lead to a profound sense of powerlessness. How can parents get out in front of this? The key is anticipation and advance notice (child psychologists sometimes refer to this as “front-loading”).
Start earlier than you think you need to. Gently let your child know that you’re planning a move. If this is your family’s first move with your child, talk him or her through what to expect: the arrival of the moving truck, the boxes, the professional packers or movers if you will be hiring any, and where you will be moving. Make a visit to the new neighborhood as early as possible. Will your child be switching schools? Changing soccer clubs? Seek out as many points of interest as you can in the new neighborhood, map them out and visit them: the new park, school, neighborhood ice cream parlor, etc. Highlight things the child can get excited about. See if you can befriend some new neighbors ahead of your move-in date. Talk about ground rules for the new area. Where will your child be allowed to ride his or her bike? What areas will they play in? Are there new intersections to be careful about? Engaging in detail with your new home will help make it more tangible to your child, and this will boost their confidence in what the future holds beyond the home they know.
While finding things to look forward to, it will also be important to honor your child’s need to say goodbye to the old home. Dedicate ample time and conversation to processing this. Take photos together that will help you preserve fond memories of your neighborhood. Draft a family bucket list of things to do before leaving: saying goodbye to favorite neighbors, taking a final walk around the neighborhood, picking some fruit off a backyard tree to take to the new house, etc. These rituals help honor a child’s feelings of loss and channel them into positive memories.
Last but not least in your preparations, map out a detailed plan for the weeks before the move. This can include packing deadlines, the final goodbyes or bucket list items mentioned above, and when to expect the truck, movers, etc. Talk through this together, post it where your child can see it and refer to it as your move approaches. Feeling on top of what will happen can help mitigate a child’s sense of powerlessness as moving day approaches. Having a set schedule will also make it easier to stick to daily routines, and these help keep both you and your kid feeling sane and normal as you make your transition. The more organized you are, the easier it will be for you to stay peaceful and emotionally present. If you are able to project a calm, positive attitude starting weeks ahead of the move, your child is likely to absorb it. If you spring your move at the last minute, your child is likely to respond as I did — with tears!
A good moving plan also includes to-do lists for kids. Giving them age-appropriate jobs will keep them busy and engaged. Do be careful to set realistic expectations for what kids are capable of doing — applying color coded stickers to identify boxes or picking a few special items for their own “unpack first” box are appropriate tasks for small children, but don’t expect them to be able to sort through all their belongs, decide what to keep and what to donate, or pack things effectively. It will be more efficient to hire a babysitter or drop small kids at a friend’s house to give you time and space for the serious work of packing. Still, a little bit of involvement goes a long way towards helping your child feel like a participant — not just a spectator — in the moving process. Similarly, as you make choices about the layout of your new home, consider giving your child a say, albeit a limited say. Will you be repainting? You might let your child pick a paint color for their new room, or weigh in on which side of the new living room your sofa works best in. Don’t go overboard on letting a child dictate the new situation, however. I once watched friends offer their teenage son his choice of bedrooms in their new house. He promptly selected the master bedroom, and they had to wait until he left for college before they could move out of the back bedroom. Don’t make the same mistake!
Moving day is the moment when everything hangs in the balance. Don’t blow it! The most critical thing to remember on moving day is the “first night” bag. The boxes you move into your new house may get shuffled around and take days to unpack, so don’t trust the essentials to them. Grab kids’ sheets and bedding, towels, toothbrushes and toothpaste, pajamas, favorite stuffed animals or books, and any other items your child deems central to bedtime happiness (you can enlist him or her to help pack these things). When you arrive at your new home, focus on one room first — preferably your child’s room — and get the bed made with fresh linens first thing. Carry these sheets and towels separately in a suitcase so they won’t get mixed up with the rest of the boxes. Now, even if the rest of the house is in chaos, your child can relax knowing that at least their bed feels like home. Unzipping their “first night” bag and taking out all the trappings of a normal bedtime will be very comforting.
But until night falls, there’s still a lot of moving and shuffling that needs to happen. If you have succeeded in setting up your kids’ bedroom first, this makes a great refuge while a moving crew carries heavy furniture into the rest of the house. Packing snacks, paper plates, disposable/compostable utensils and wet wipes in a separate bag will help you keep your kids fed, clean, and out of the way until the bathroom towels and kitchen boxes are unpacked. Child-friendly moving companies may provide coloring pages or other activities to occupy kids out of harm’s way. Or plan your own activities: if your new home has an outdoor play area, this is a great place for kids to hang out where they won’t be underfoot for the movers. Make sure to have games or sports equipment handy (in your own car rather than boxed up in the moving truck). If you don’t have a yard, focus on indoor activities in a limited area of the house: books, coloring activities, puzzles, and so on. This is one day when it’s probably fair to loosen up on screen time. Movies and video games are a great distraction when movers are shifting heavy furniture around the rest of the house! It is also a great time to leave your kids with a babysitter or at a friend or relative’s house until the movers are finished. Once the movers are gone and the unpacking starts, however, kids will love to get involved. And once those moving boxes are empty, the potential for repurposing them into cardboard houses and castles will be endless! Give your kids some time to enjoy them before tossing them into the recycling bin.
Furniture all moved in? Boxes all unpacked? Kids still struggling to adjust? This is totally normal! Expect kids to be out of sorts and behaving oddly for days or weeks after the move. You just turned their lives upside down! It’s only natural for them to be feeling off. Ask thoughtful questions, listen to how they’re feeling, and above all, give them some time to adjust. I promise that with a little time, they’ll settle right into the new home. Before you know it, they’ll be acting like they’ve never lived anywhere else.