Moving to a new community may be one of the most stress-producing experiences a family faces. Frequent moves or even a single move can be especially hard on a youngster, and this stress occurs even when there are siblings.
Moves interrupt friendships. To a new child at school, it may at first seem that everyone else has a best friend or is securely involved in a clique. The child must get used to a different curriculum, and finds him or herself ahead on certain subjects and behind on others, causing boredom and anxiety.
Children in kindergarten or first grade may be particularly vulnerable to a family move because developmentally they are just in the process of separating from their parents and adjusting to new authority figures and peer groups. The relocation can interfere with that normal process of separation by causing them to return to a more dependent relationship with their parents.
In general, the older the child, the more difficulty he or she will have with the move because of the increasing importance of the peer group. Pre-teens and teenagers may repeatedly protest the move, or ask to stay in their hometown with a friend’s family. Some youngsters may not talk about their distress, so parents should be aware of the warning signs of depression, including changes in appetite, withdrawal, a drop in grades, irritability, sleep disturbances or other dramatic changes in behavior.
Children who seem depressed by a move may be reacting less to the relocation than to the stress of their parents settling in to a new area. Sometimes one parent may be against the move, and children will sense and react to this parental discord.
If the child shows persistent signs of depression or distress, parents can ask their family doctor, their pediatrician or the local medical society to refer them to a child and adolescent psychiatrist, who can diagnose and treat physical as well as emotional problems that may affect children as a result of stress. The child and adolescent psychiatrist can also help parents learn how to make the new experience easier on the entire family.
To make the move easier on children, parents may take these steps:
- explain clearly to the children why the move is necessary.
- familiarize the children as much as possible with the new area with maps, photographs or the daily newspaper.
- describe advantages of the new location that the child might appreciate such as a lake, mountain or an amusement park.
- after the move, get involved with the children in activities of the local church or synagogue, PTA, scouts, YMCA, etc.
- if a son or daughter is a senior in high school, consider the possibility of letting him or her stay with a trusted family until the school year is over.
The more frequently a family moves, the more important is the need for internal stability. With the proper attention from parents and professional help if necessary, moving can be a positive growth experience for children, leading to increased self-confidence and interpersonal skills.
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