Moving to a new city or town can be overwhelming for any child. Amid the chaos of packing, kids are forced to say goodbye to friends, teachers, and the familiar comfort of their community.
After the move, kids must acclimate to a new school, where they might find themselves lagging behind the rest of their classmates. Many children worry about being “the new kid,” and some find it hard to make new friends.
For the children of military families, the challenges of a relocation—or Permanent Change of Station—are particularly acute. For one thing, military families relocate more frequently than civilian families (every two to three years, on average) and they tend to move greater distances. When military families move from bases to civilian neighborhoods, children often feel isolated from their peers, who can’t identify with the military lifestyle.
Related: Getting Kids Ready for a Deployment
PCSs are inevitable for many military families, but moving does not inevitably have to be a negative experience. By preparing for the move in advance, keeping lines of communication open, and maintaining a positive attitude, parents can help their kids cope with the challenges of relocation. Here are some tips for ensuring that your child transitions smoothly from one home to another.
Before you prepare to relocate, talk to your child about what the move will be like, and what challenges might occur during the process of relocation. You can then start to problem—solve in advance. “It’s much easier to deal with something that’s expected than it is to be shocked and unprepared for a stressor,” says Dr. Jamie Howard, director of the Stress and Resilience Program at Child Mind and former clinical fellow with the Center for Returning Veterans, VA Boston Healthcare System.
Younger kids also benefit from transitional exercises before a relocation; let your child help out with packing, or encourage her to choose the color of her new room. Involving children in the move in this way has the added benefit of making them feel in control at a time when events in their lives can seem out of their hands.
“One of the things that troubles kids most during the move is that they don’t have any control over their environment,”says Jacey Eckhart, a military sociologist who is the Director of Spouse and Family Programs at Military.com. Eckhart has discovered firsthand the importance of helping children gradually prepare for a move on their own terms. Her husband has been in the Navy for twenty-seven years, and she has had to relocate with her family sixteen times.
“When our kids were little, we had movers that would make them boxes to play in while the packing was going on,” she says. “They would also get the idea that we were putting stuff in boxes, so they would put a whole bunch of stuff in their boxes. And we let them pick their own rooms in their new house. A lot of times, letting the kid feel a sense of mastery, that makes the difference in the move.”
In addition to preparing your kids for the move, let them know that they can come to you at any point to talk about how the transition is going, or to ask for advice. “The most powerful question you can ask over and over during the move is ‘What can I do to help you?’ says Eckhart. “Usually kids have a pretty good answer to this. I found that my kids always did.”
It might be difficult to communicate with your child in the way that you would like if you are coping with a lot of your own stress or anxiety. Look to online resources—such as the Focus Project, or the Veteran Parenting Toolkit—for guidance on fostering closeness and communication with your child during stressful periods.
Establish a routine
When faced with the daunting task of unpacking box upon box in a new home, keeping regular mealtimes and bedtimes might not be your biggest priority. But it’s important to try and establish a routine for your kids as soon as you get to the new location. “Younger kids in general thrive with routine and predictability,” says Dr. Howard. “You’re uprooting some of that with a move, which is difficult. Parents want to get a routine established ASAP.”
Filling the new house with familiar objects can also help kids feel more comfortable after a relocation. This is especially true when a family is relocating to a drastically different environment overseas, as Erin Rovack Henderschedt knows well. Rovack Henderschedt’s family recently moved from Virginia to Taipei because her husband is stationed in Taiwan. To help her four sons, who range in age from 6-16, feel at ease in a foreign country, Rovack Henderschedt goes out of her way to stock the house with the boys’ favorite snacks. “We order from Amazon,” she says. “We order the cereals that they like, we order the pretzels that they like, because you can’t get that here.”
Rovack Henderschedt also recommends that parents set up as quickly as possible once their belongings arrive at the new home. “As soon as pictures arrive, put them up on the wall,” she explains. “As soon as bedding arrives that your kids are familiar with, put it on the bed and make their beds look like their beds were in their old house. Make everything as comfortable as possible.”
Make new friends, but keep the old
For many kids, and especially for adolescents, the hardest part of relocating is having to leave close friends behind. Friendships are critical to older children, and teenagers can feel very isolated after moving to a community where they don’t have a built-in peer group. Breaking into new friend groups can be a difficult process, and military kids are sometimes reluctant to put in the effort because they know that they will likely have to move again in a few years.
But kids should establish roots in their new community, even if they will only be staying there temporarily. “It’s more healthy and adaptive for kids to thrive in whatever environment they are in—even if they have to leave—rather than to never form deep connections to protect themselves to an eventual move,” Dr. Howard explains. Signing kids up for extracurricular activities is a great way to help them meet children with similar interests.
At the same time, it’s important for kids to know that moving to a new community doesn’t mean that they can’t hold on to meaningful friendships. Thanks to an abundance of social media outlets, children can stay in contact with old friends, and you should encourage your child to use social media as a means of keeping in touch. When Jacey Eckhart and her family moved from Washington DC to New Orleans several years ago, Facebook was just starting to gain traction. Eckhart noticed that her daughter, who was in eighth grade at the time, felt less alone in the new city because she was able to keep in touch with friends over Facebook.
“What I observed was that she was able to hold on to a part of herself that was still friends with all of them,” Eckhart explains. “The thing about Facebook is that it kept my kids going when they didn’t have any friends in the new place.”
Collaborate with the new school
Talk to teachers and administrators before your child’s first day of school. If your child is attending a school off-base, let them know that your child belongs to a military family. Make sure the school knows if a parent has been deployed. If teachers know that your child is going through a stressful time, they can monitor her to make sure she is doing well.
If you are moving from a military base to a civilian community, your child may feel isolated from her new set of peers, whose frames of reference are far removed from the military lifestyle. This is especially true if the move coincides with a deployment; other kids in the class probably won’t be able to understand the stress and worry that come with having a deployed parent. You can ask your child’s new teachers to talk to the class about what it means to have a parent in the military. “It’s really nice for a child not to feel alone, for the classroom to know that the child has a parent who is deployed, and for the classroom to spend some time talking about what that means and how brave the parent is,” says Dr. Howard. That way, the child feels included and supported, instead of alone and afraid.
When you talk about the relocation with your child, focus on the good things about the move. Maybe you will be moving to a bigger house, or to a warmer climate. Maybe the child’s new school will have more extracurricular opportunities. Remind your child that the family has to move because the military parent has a very important job. Erin Rovack Henderschedt recommends having a gift waiting at the new house, so kids will be excited about getting there. Before her family moved to Taipei, she bought each of her sons an iPad Mini so they could entertain themselves on the long plane ride to their new home. “That helped a lot,” she says. “They never would have gotten those if we weren’t moving overseas.”
Your own attitude toward the relocation can also have a tremendous impact on how your child handles the move. If you let your child see that you are stressed, sad, or angry about having to uproot the family, your child will likely feel stressed, sad, and angry too. So try to stay positive, even when you are feeling overwhelmed. Catherine Lang recently moved from Oklahoma to Tennessee with her husband and three young sons. Her boys—who are 8, 7, and 3 years old—expressed some concern about leaving their friends behind, but Lang found that they were ultimately excited about the relocation.
“I think a lot of it has to do with my husband’s and my attitude toward it,” she says. “My best advice is to make an adventure out of it. Make it sound fun all the time, be excited about it. I have friends that I’m going to miss too, but I don’t let my kids see that side. I’ll tell them, ‘Yeah, I’m going to miss my friends, but I’m going to make new friends and it’s going to be so exciting.’ ”