Q: I think I'm mostly looking for reassurance that I'm doing this right. We are moving several states away from the only place my smart, sensitive, insightful, lovely 9-year-old daughter has ever known. She's the perfect storm of her mom — smart, defends the underdog, gets her feelings hurt easily — and her dad, who is also super smart, a deep thinker, internalizes feelings and has high anxiety. She cried on me for two hours yesterday about everything. We always give her space for her big feelings while providing hugs and love. We talk it out when she wants to. I know this is hard and don't lie about it. I emphasize the good things about the move while not denying the bad. She's talking to the school counselor. She's scared kids and teachers will be mean. What else can we do to help her with this big transition?
A: Here is your reassurance: You are doing this right. See? Easy!
In all seriousness, there is nothing more painful than watching our children suffer. For an even-tempered child, a move away from friends and everything they know is hard, but this change can be especially difficult for a sensitive child. Just as there is excitement and fear in adults when they move, children feel a similar mix of feelings; 9-year-olds just aren’t mature enough to manage all of them constantly.
Let’s take a moment to understand the interior of a 9-year-old’s world. She is on the cusp of maturity and adolescence. Nine-year-old children are gaining independence by the day, and they thrive off work, chores and having a real voice. Friendships are quite important to them, and you will see your child begin to gravitate more and more toward true friendships (and hurt feelings). The 9-year-old can focus in school for longer periods of time and can become deeply interested in many different subjects, wanting to be the “expert” in one (for a bit, until they jump to the next subject). Nine-year-olds loves to move their bodies, and puberty can begin for girls, resulting in rapid growth spurts. It is an intense and wonderful age.
Add to this significant transition the fact that your daughter is bright and sensitive. Well, that’s a lot.
But here is your good news: Your daughter can weather this just fine. How can I say that with some amount of confidence? Because you are doing everything you possibly can to help her! Listening to her cry? Check. Providing her support at school with a counselor? Check. That right there is Good Parenting 101. And though I know it is distressing to see the tears, remember, that means she is processing all of her worries from school. She is keeping it together during the day, and this takes much emotional energy for a 9-year-old. As she acclimates to her new environment, the tears will slow down.
What do you do until then?
First, reach out to her teachers as soon as you figure out who they are (you may ask the school for a bit of consideration on this). Via email, share some questions with the teachers that you and your daughter create together, such as: “Your dream vacation” or “your favorite animal” or “your favorite dessert.” These questions, although simple and a bit silly, serve to build a bridge between your daughter and the teacher. If we can find some similarities between the 9-year-old and the teacher, your daughter will feel more confident going to school. Any bit of connection helps here. Also, be sure to have a friendly back-and-forth with the teachers, letting them know you are happy to support them and are excited for the year. You don’t need to spin a whole tale of woe about your daughter, but some information can be a huge help.
Next, before you leave, organize a little bon voyage party for your daughter. Yes, this will be tear-inducing, but it’s a good way to help your daughter with the transition. Take tons of pictures of neighbors, favorite spots in the house, friends, the yard, you name it. If it pulls at your heartstrings, take a picture. And then upload all of these pictures to an app such as Chatbooks or something similar to create a small photo album. In this day, when everything is digital, holding onto a tangible photo album is special for children. It is something to flip through during a cry, to bring to school for show and tell, and to look at with a parent to relive memories.
When you move, have a get-together in the new neighborhood. Reach out to other parents (in advance if you can) and invite their families over for some snacks and lemonade. Might it be nerve-racking? Yes, but it is worth it to reach out to your new community.
Don’t push, but definitely suggest some activities your daughter could take part in. If she is prone to anxiety, it is easy to coddle and keep her inside, but it is important for her to realize how resilient she is in this transition. You know her best, so suggest something new without sending her into a complete tailspin.
Meanwhile, read anything by Tamar Chansky or Bonnie Zucker to learn more about children and anxiety. I also like “The Orchid and the Dandelion: Why Some Children Struggle and How All Can Thrive” by W. Thomas Boyce to help you better understand your sensitive child.