What to Expect
A while back, I sent a survey out to US Foreign Services families about transitions and moving with kids. I asked how their children responded to moving and major transitions in the past. I got a lot of great feedback from 60 respondents, much of which is in line with my research.
Of the 60 respondents, 11 responded that their children had no problems with moves in the past. The vast majority of respondents did report some problems with their children after a move, however, these were all developmentally appropriate responses to a major stressor, such as a move. There were a few parents who stated they had sought mental health services but in those cases there was more going on then simply the move.
Let me begin by saying children are resilient and while most of them will have reactions to moves, some of which might worry you, these reactions are normal and temporary. It is totally NORMAL for your kids to act out, regress, or be sad. Kids thrive under structure and routine and obviously moving disrupts everything. In fact, it could take up to 6 months or so before they have adjusted to their new circumstances. Keep this in mind when negotiating your expectations for your children when you arrive to a new place. Patience and understanding might be your biggest allies, as difficult as that may be sometimes. As we all know, moving is stressful on parents too, so keeping your cool during this time period might be tough for you. If so, check out some stress management techniques.
I wanted to summarize the responses I got from parents about what they saw in their kids during times of moving and other major transitions and share it with parents. It’s helpful to know what to expect and it is also nice to know you are not alone.
Most kids two and under will transition pretty easily. As long as there is stability with their primary caretakers, which is their primary comfort object, they should adjust relatively well. You might see an increase in clinginess. Nursing mothers reported having difficulties with their milk supply during moves.
Between the ages of 2 and 5 children may start having more difficulties when it comes to major transitions. Regression was a very common response from parents- kids losing their potty training, losing language, and wanting to sleep in their parents bed were just some of the responses. Many parents noted that their kids were more clingy, wanting to be carried more often, and had an increase in separation anxiety. Sleep issues in general were also reported along with kids being scared of the dark or waking up crying and wanting their parents. And of course acting out behavior, boundary testing, and tantrums is totally normal during these time periods and to be expected.
Many of the same issues exist for school age children. Regression was again reported, such as kids wetting the bed or reverting to baby talk. Many parents reported their kids not wanting to sleep alone and being scared of the dark and their new house. Some reported kids being more withdrawn or quieter, some wanted to spend more time with parents while others retreated into video games. Others saw sadness and an increase in crying. During this age children have begun to develop closer and more meaningful friendships and so they might experience missing and grieving their friendships for the first time.
The middle school years are some of those most difficult parenting years you will face. A recent study by the University of Arizona found that mothers of only middle schoolers reported the highest levels of stress, loneliness and emptiness. Throw a major move in there and you could have even bigger issues. Around this time you might begin to see more anger in your kids. More issues with grades and school achievement might present themselves. They might be overly sensitive.
I didn’t get as many responses from parents of high school aged kids, but of the ones I did get, the answers were pretty consistent- anger, resentful, and difficulties making new friends. Developmentally, achieving autonomy is the most important task of adolescence. Being a part of a peer group and pulling away from the family is how this is achieved. So a move can cause disruptions with teenagers because not only are they are leaving their friends but have to depend on their parents at a time that they want to be exerting their independence. Exhibiting poor judgment and risk taking behaviors come with the territory of being an adolescent, which could be exacerbated by the desire to fit into a new peer group.
I want to point out that while it is very normal for your children to experience regression, anger, sadness, and acting out behaviors during these moves you still want to tune in for extreme responses that may be signs of depression or anxiety so that you can get the help your child needs. If they don’t seem to be bouncing back or are reflecting real signs of hopelessness touch base with a professional.
Thank you to all the families who participated in the survey. In my next post I will continue to talk about moving and easing the transition, along with suggestions from Foreign Service families.
For further information check out the Foreign Service Institute video “Raising Children Overseas” with Dr. Elmore Rigamer, a former Foreign Service Psychiatrist, who sheds light on what to expect with your kids and how to help.
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