Smooth transitions during significant changes in the early years of childhood build trust and a sense of security in children, particularly because many such changes revolve around familiar places such as homes or schools and/or caregivers and teachers who become attachment figures. Therefore, a positive experience during these times of change helps create secure, happy individuals. It also promotes the values of loyalty and commitment which eventually translates into stable, healthy adult relationships. Thus, even though the impact of such events may not be apparent on younger children, it significantly affects their future development.
Three simple steps can help make transitions easier for children. First, there needs to be some form of closure, where a child can say goodbye to what he or she may be leaving behind. Second, it’s important to familiarize the child with what is “new” (for example: a new house, a new neighborhood or a new school). And finally, there needs to be a sense of continuity once they have moved in to their new space such that their feelings of loss of the old and familiar can be resolved positively.
Relocating has been identified as one of the top five stressors for adults so it’s not surprising that it’s difficult for children as well, even the well-adjusted ones. If the process isn’t explained to them, children feel a lack of control and worry about what to expect. Infants are often overlooked during this time with the assumption that they won’t understand; however, their comprehension of surrounding events as well as language is significantly developed by the age of 6 months. Imagine crawling from one room to another searching unsuccessfully for your favorite electric outlet to put your fingers in! It would be rather disorienting!
Mark the day of the move on a calendar and involve the children in the moving process. Take them to visit their new house and neighborhood before the actual move. Show them the room that will be theirs, point out the neighborhood park, and their new school; familiarize them with the area.
During the weeks leading up to the moving day, let them be present while you pack. Seeing packed boxes around the house helps children grasp the idea and allows time for it to sink in gradually. Reading relevant books, drawing pictures and role play during this time provides children with an opportunity to discuss their feelings. Talk about their favorite memories in the house, or aspects of their neighborhood that they like. Ask them what they will miss, what they expect to be different and what they are excited about in their new place. Take pictures with them of their favorite places in the house as well as the neighborhood and talk about memories that they can hold on to while moving forward.
Before the day of the move, explain that it’s their last day and if possible, keep it open to spend it with them in the way they would like. Take them to the park or their favorite restaurant. Have them visit a friend. Drive around the area and have them wave goodbye to the familiar people and places. At the same time, reassure them that will be able to visit again and see their friends (if that is a possibility). Encourage excitement about the move and the new places to explore.
Allow children to pack the things in their room, younger children worry about what might happen to their belongings and this process helps them understand that all their toys and books are traveling with them. Separate a few boxes of their favorite things and take them in the car with you so that children aren’t waiting for the truck to arrive. Setting up the children’s room in a new house first helps ground them immediately. An unfamiliar, empty space immediately becomes warm and inviting with their familiar belongings. Establish their daily routine as quickly as possible; continuity with a predictable structure will help stabilize them in unfamiliar settings.
If the children have a nanny or a babysitter that you will no longer be using, prepare the children for that. If possible, ask the nanny to continue for the first couple of weeks after the move so that the number of changes at once is minimized. Regardless of whether or not she can do so, acknowledge her last day with a special gesture: for example, have the children make her a thank you card or frame a picture of all of them together and have the children decorate the frame before giving it to her. See if the children can visit her over the next few weeks to prevent a feeling of abandonment. Children form surprisingly strong bonds with their caregivers and even though it may not be obvious, the sudden absence of these caregivers from the children’s lives is not only disruptive it also impacts their sense of commitment and loyalty to loved ones in the future.
Relocating, setting up a new house and beginning a new job can be overwhelming. However, it’s important to prioritize the children and be available to them to ease their apprehension and anxiety over the first few days. Once they feel (emotionally) safe they will adapt to the changes quickly and allow you the peace of mind to address your own worries.
At the end of the school year many parents begin looking in to summer camps and new schools for children in the fall. Depending on the temperament of your child this can be a rather exciting time or a very anxious one. While some children adapt more easily to change than others, a predictable routine provides a sense of security to all children. Therefore, if children aren’t prepared, any deviation from their “normal day” can be stressful and lead to some form of mild anxiety that manifests in behavioral changes such as irritability, frequent tantrums, unwarranted crying spells, less sociability and more clinginess. This is particularly true for younger kids who cannot fully comprehend the change.
In order to provide a sense of closure to your child, mark the last day of the school year on a calendar and talk to your child about what to expect over the summer a few weeks prior to the day. Give them an opportunity to tell you how they feel about the end of the year: their friends might be moving away, they might be worried about going to a new school, or they might even be relieved that the year is over. Mark the occasion with some sort of special but simple event, for example: have your child make a card for their teacher and/or their friends or, create a folder of their schoolwork or pictures from the year and look over it together. (These are symbolic activities and work well with children as young as 2 years old). Shield your child from your own anxiousness or nostalgia and keep farewells simple.
Familiarize your child with the new environment before dropping them off for a full day. (Ideally, for younger children, the length of their day at a new school should be increased slowly.) Have your child visit the new school and meet with the new teachers. Introducing the teachers by name is important because children are more likely to remember them. Walk around with them and discuss similarities between their old school and their new school. Point out the important areas of the classroom: the cubbies, the bathroom, the library etc. Cubbies enable children to feel a sense of belonging and are therefore particularly relevant. Showing them the library area is also essential as a child can use it during quiet time or when he or she isn’t sure where to go in between activities. Point out books and toys that he or she likes to read or play with. Speak to the new teachers about your child’s preferences and habits. If possible, arrange play dates with children who will be with your child in the new class. Younger children benefit from a transition object; it could be a favorite toy (which they can leave in their cubby) or the blanket they used for nap time in their previous class.
At home, keep changes to a minimum. Parents tend be more laid-back during summer because the children are out of school. However, it’s important to continue with a familiar routine to maintain normalcy for the children, particularly around nap time, bed time and meals. Too many changes at once can be overwhelming for young children. Spend time reading books about goodbyes, moving and going to a new school. Stories can provide opportunities for children to process their feelings and talk about their worries with you. Arrange play dates with friends from their old school and have them visit their old teachers. This helps children realize that changing schools/classes doesn’t necessarily mean losing their friends or the people they love.
Most importantly, be available to your child. As long as their foundations are stable, they will feel grounded and overcome any challenges that may arise during these times of transition.