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Back at Home After Katrina, a Family Questions How to Move On

By Marguerite Kelly
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, November 14, 2008

Q.Our family of five recently moved back to our home, which was damaged in Hurricane Katrina, but the children and I hated to leave our new friends, schools, church and work.

We decided that it was better for us to be together, however, since my husband, a university professor, had been commuting to his job for four years and his extended absences were hard on everybody.

Unfortunately, the move has been hard. Our 11-year-old daughter and I are depressed and lonely, but it's the 15-year-old that I worry about most. Her school is quite small and she's not a great student anymore, but she does keep up with her music and drama and with her friends on Facebook. She still misses them, though, and she is so very sad.

We thought we could resume our old friendships when we got back, but things are very different here. Although our house has been repaired, it's much too small for us now -- we often feel claustrophobic when our 5-year-old runs from room to room -- and the community still has infrastructure problems. Our reaction to the Hurricane Gustav evacuation made me realize that we should have moved to a larger home, in a safer town with better schools and closer to the university, so my husband wouldn't have to drive 70 miles to get to work.

I think a larger home in a functioning, intact community could improve our outlook, but should we move again -- either now or next summer? Or should we stay put and make the best of it? How would another move affect my older daughter and, to a lesser extent, her sister and me? And if we do move, how can we get through this transition a little better next time?

A.Moving can be tough, especially when it's sudden or unwelcome or a big ordeal, and Katrina made sure that it was all of those things.

Leaving home under those scary conditions was especially hard on children, for a child's home is her sanctuary.

Unfortunately, your home -- repaired though it has been -- is not the sanctuary it once was. Because of that, and because all of you reacted so strongly to the Gustav evacuation, it would make sense to move, but include your children -- particularly your 15-year-old -- in the plans every step of the way. The absence of information upsets young people more than the information they get, however unwelcome it is.

Begin by asking each of your children what she likes -- and doesn't like -- about your town and your house and what she would change if she could. This will help you make sure you're not projecting your own depression on your kids, and helps them realize that they can't make the town rebuild any faster or make their house any bigger, no matter how hard they try.

Once your children have had a long time to talk, you and your husband should tell them how lonely you have been since you got back and how much you'd like to move near the university, so their dad wouldn't have to drive 140 miles a day and the family could have more time together. Children will do almost anything if they know the reason why -- and these are pretty good reasons for moving.

It doesn't really matter when you move, however. It may be hard to find the right house immediately, but if you did and your children started new schools in a month or two, they would probably get a warm welcome. Students usually get quite bored with their classmates by midyear and are eager to make new friends.

If you wait until summer, however, you'll have more time to find the right house, the right town and the right schools.

When you've found some neighborhoods that everyone likes, ask the principals in those school districts if you could observe for a morning; if your children could spend a day at their schools; and if you could attend one of their plays, concerts or games and go to a PTA meeting, too. A few functions, an hour or so in the classroom and a walk through the lunchroom and the playground will teach you more about a school, its standards, its teachers and its students than a batch of test scores ever could.

The right school won't get rid of your teenager's blues entirely, but they should get better if you surprise her with a trip to see her best friend in the town where she used to live. This is an extravagance, but it will help her realize that the more places she lives, the more friends -- and the more adventures -- she will have.

Questions? Send them to advice@margueritekelly.com or to Box 15310, Washington, D.C. 20003.

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