Q: My 7-year-old daughter has big emotions, big love, big anger, big sadness, big everything. You have taught me to embrace all these emotions and just be there for her. My new issue is that we’re moving from Canada to the United States in three weeks for my husband’s work. In addition to my daughter, I have a 10-year-old son with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Do you have any suggestions on how I can make this transition easier for them? My daughter has been acting out lately and letting me know that she doesn’t want to go. This move is only for approximately one year, and we’ll be back home to visit at Christmas.
A: Congrats, and I am sorry. Why both? Because that’s how most big transitions are. A move is exciting and new, but it is also filled with stress and unknowns. For children, this is doubly true. I am guessing that the children have not had a big move like this before, and I want to reassure you that they are resilient. Change is hard, but when children can trust that their relationships with you will stay the same, they can handle a great deal of it, including this move. It’s also clear that you are a tuned-in parent, so although there will be struggles, I am confident that you will be able to navigate them with empathy.
In terms of making the transition easier for your children, I am going to begin with you. Children, even a 7- and 10-year-old, are soaking in your energy all of the time. If you are organized, calm, hopeful and tapped into your emotions, they can follow your lead.
You are under even more pressure because this is a temporary move. You are establishing your family life in another city (new schools, new doctors, new parks, new friends, new activities) only to know that you will return to your previous life in 12 months. This isn’t a problem, but it’s another layer to consider. So get your own life and routine in order first. That may sound counterintuitive, but from that grounded place, you will be able to take better care of your family.
Begin to have regular family meetings right away. They don’t have to focus on the move, but they will give everyone an opportunity to discuss the minutiae of their day and how they are feeling. Then use these meetings as a vehicle for planning for the move. To start, ask open-ended questions: “How is everyone feeling about moving? What makes you nervous about it?”
Many parents are loath to ask about negative feelings or draw them out, but this is where you learn about your children and give them a chance to express their emotions. Many of the frustrating behaviors we see in kids come from pent-up emotions they are having trouble expressing. When parents help them express those feelings (rather than always staying in fix-it or stop-it mode), those behaviors will change.
As you begin to ask your children open-ended questions about how they feel, your marching orders will become clearer. For instance, is the 7-year-old nervous about leaving her friends and not making new ones? You can simultaneously listen to her fears and worries (because you cannot actually fix this issue) while also making plans to meet kids at her new school. For instance, I recently received an email from a family new to my daughter’s school. Their daughter is in my daughter’s class, and they invited the class (and parents) to celebrate the girl’s birthday and hang out. They kept it light and easy and family-friendly. You could easily do something like this for your daughter.
Also, don’t forget the power of mementos. Technology often aggrieves parents, but you can create amazing photo books with and for your children. Holding on to memories can elicit tears from adults and children alike, which is good. When children are sad, they need to cry. It helps them adapt to change and accept reality.
You will probably use ADHD visual tools for your 10-year-old, but consider using them with your 7-year-old, too. It is so important for your children to have a sense of what is happening and when. I prefer weekly hang-up calendars (the month-long kind can be overwhelming), and you can use the family meetings to look ahead, creating a routine and a sense of safety for your children.
Finally, don’t fret about your children’s feelings. Yes, they are inconvenient and messy and tiring, but they are normal. Keep normalizing the 7-year-old’s big feelings and relating to her. I am not suggesting that you let your boundaries go (you need them more than ever), but use the emotions as a way to connect, not divide. And if you feel like your daughter’s emotions are beginning to take on a life of their own, finding a good play therapist can help.
Good luck and travel safely.