Supporting Children Through a Big Move

Photography: Katherine Heise

By Jessica Rios

In mid-November 2016, sitting at our old wooden farm table in Northern California, my husband and I decided to move to his native country, Sweden. His whole family lives there and they cherish our daughter Helena. We said we would move there for at least a year before she turned five, and she was about to turn four.

Yet a big move doesn’t happen overnight – not graciously, anyway. Not with kids in the picture. From the time we decided until the evening our snazzy Norwegian Airlines bird lifted off the runway, there were six and a half months of intensive project planning, no small part of which was the seeing, holding and guiding of a young human amidst a huge transition. The emotional landscape, the social transitions and farewells. And the physical part, which was arduous but not as much work as the less-visible aspects.

So I took notes for all the mamas and papas to come who might value some insight on what makes a big move work well, and what rocks its boat.

My intent is to offer enough supportive ideas for those lifting big ships to whole new locales, cities, states, continents, cultures. Any move is a big deal, and moving to an entirely different part of the planet requires an added extent of parenting skills and instincts.

Deciding When to Go: Communication, Transparency and Presence

Sometimes we have an evident say in when we move; sometimes we don’t. If a job needs you Tuesday, you might lift up and go. Making a big move with that much force can be extremely strenuous on a child. Transitioning graciously takes time. Whenever possible, be cushioned. Six months was just right for us. My daughter’s sense of confidence about our move ripened with each week and month. Prevent whiplash. Savor the shift.

If you must go abruptly, take strides to transition in a way that leaves your child feeling safely held by what’s familiar – your love, your rhythms and routines – and excited about what’s next. Say “no” more often to busy-ness so you reduce stress and increase connection and groundedness. Be with those closest to you. Take excellent care of yourself. Ask for more help.

Most adults prefer to know about a move well far in advance. We’ve got more practical matters to arrange. We’re guiding our children’s emotional process, and our own. Children are more focused in the present moment and have a different sense of timing about relocation. They are masters of “be here now” as in the famous book by Ram Dass.

There is no one “right way” to decide when to start discussing your move with your child. Find your best timing. You don’t want to shock them with a last-minute announcement, yet there’s no need to talk about it with them as much as with the adults involved.

Share the news when you feel confident about it, so confidence is what’s conveyed to your children. For us, this was two weeks after deciding, yet for the months that followed it was only with a “trickle” of chatter about it. Slowly trickle-in tidbits about the transition…When you’re out admiring flowers downtown: “Oh Emma, won’t it be fun to see what flowers grow in Japan?” Or when you’re watching your kid play trumpet: “Nicholas, I bet you’ll be good at learning to speak Japanese. You can teach ME some words!”

Transparency is key to a trusting relationship. Be sure to share some of your unpleasant feelings about the move, too. This helps a child to feel prepare emotionally for when things aren’t easy.

Avoiding painful topics with children doesn’t help prepare them for the harsh elements of human life. It simply won’t feel great to miss their close pals so much. Share what feels natural for you, and hold them when they’re feeling yucky feelings. Pushing it away only buries it for later.

I’ll emphasize that again. Within the intensity of being a parent, I have found this piece to be as important as any, to the wellbeing of a child. Help them be with and express their uncomfortable feelings. A healthy life requires this emotional intelligence skill.

Self Care

Making a big move is a full time job. Some of your stress will rub off on your child, so be sure to take exquisite care of yourself.

Acknowledge yourself. No, you don’t need to post your self-love-revolution video on YouTube. Write in your journal: I acknowledge myself for… five things a day. Feeling appreciated is not a luxury; it is essential for well being. Fill up your own tank.

Get to bed early, turn off your screen after dark, move that body of yours up hills, take baths, get acupuncture, drink lots of water. You are holding up so much; the better you care for yourself, the more your children benefit.

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