There are ways to lessen the impact that a move has on the children. One is to bring the changes on slowly—in stages. The first shock for kids, obviously, is that Mom or Dad is leaving.
If you don’t have to move immediately, consider giving them time and space to process that change. Then at the right time, gently introduce the idea of moving. It is important to describe things that will stay the same. You may need to use your imagination, and keep in mind that little things can be important. In the first phase, when Dad or Mom has recently left, reassure the kids that many things will remain as before.
Dr. Bingham Newman illustrates how you might approach this: “We’ll be staying in the same house; Grandma will be two blocks away. You can still ride your bike to school; it’s only two blocks—you can see it. And, your friends are right around there. You can still have play dates, and things like that at our house.” So, the more things can stay the same, even if it’s, say, for three months or six months, it’s better. Then when moving time comes, continue to preserve as many familiar things as possible.
You try to make sure they can bring something with them that’s the same, something similar; that they can pick out colors for their room. They can even help paint, they can help box things up, they can have their own little box that they put their stuff in—anything that involves them in the process is always helpful.
Meanwhile, the way you communicate to the children is all-important. It’s okay to be straightforward and honest—even to cry. The kids know this is a big deal, after all. It would be odd to them if you didn’t react emotionally! But you can also be positive, reassuring them that you’ll always be there. The last thing they need to see is Mom or Dad quaking in fear. As Newman notes, this can send them into a panic response: “All the cortisol goes right into their brains and we have the fight, flight or freeze [reaction]—and they freeze. And the only thing that’s working is their emotional brain; their cognitive brain has been put aside. They can’t concentrate; they can’t do anything in school.” You can be real, vulnerable, and human—but still be strong. That’s what your kids need.
In explaining the reasons for moving, simply say that Mom and Dad make a certain amount of money, and now that income needs to pay for two households instead of one. So, that means moving to a less-expensive home. They’ll still have their own beds, their toys, and favorite possessions. And things will be okay. With a little effort, you can even make it fun. Are you looking at a number of prospective homes? Include the kids in that process. You can say, for example, “I’ve found three places, guys, and I need your help picking one! This complex over here has a community swimming pool, and there’s a barbecue. The other one is near a beautiful park…”
You may also need to monitor how you speak about your ex-spouse. Remember, children view themselves as 50 percent Mom and 50 percent Dad. When you criticize the other parent, they can easily internalize that, thinking—perhaps unconsciously— Mom (or Dad) is really saying that about me. Needless to say, that can mess them up in a big way. And how much worse if both parents are doing it! Be careful also in the way you speak to other people when you don’t think the kids are listening. They may overhear your conversations with family or friends, and your off hand comments can be just as destructive as a deliberate smear campaign.
In this time of transition, engaging a child therapist can be invaluable. In her practice, Newman manages to elicit honest responses from kids by providing a safe place for them to express themselves. “I have a playroom,” she says. “They come in the playroom and they go, ‘Oh, wow!’ And they don’t want to go home. And they feel very comfortable, and they can talk, and they can play. And they play out whatever’s going on. So I usually find out more than anybody.”
Another helpful step: Take a coParenting class with your ex. You’ll learn how to talk with each other, perhaps as you never did before. And importantly, you’ll learn how to avoid putting the children in the middle of your conflict.
Finally, as you move toward this new phase of your life, you may need to remind yourself what you’ve been telling your kids: we’re going to be okay! With good information and the right attitude, you will.