Moving is very stressful for the whole family... How to help your child have a smoother experience?
Moving is often a source of stress for the whole family. This change can be difficult for a young child, as they do not always understand the reasons for the move. However, it is possible to prepare your toddler feel less stressed out about moving.
How can moving feel stressful for a child?
Moving is quite a significant change for a toddler. Such an undertaking comes with lots of novelty and unknown, which can be stressful for a child. Here’s what could be stressful to your toddler:
- Not understanding what is going on (e.g., why is the family moving) and what is coming.
- Being sad to abandon their familiar environment and the people they know: their house, bedroom, daycare, and friends.
- Worrying about the reasons for the move. For example, a separation, the arrival of a new baby, or a new job for one of their parents.
- Feeling stressed because they feel you are yourself stressed by the move. You may also be exhausted or impatient because of all the necessary preparations, and thus less available for your child.
- Having difficulty imagining what it’s like to live elsewhere, especially if they have lived in the same place since birth. Since their brain is not yet fully developed, it is difficult for them to picture an abstract concept such as living in another house or city, and thus normal to feel anxious about the prospect.
- Losing their usual landmarks because of the change of environment. In the new dwelling, for example, rooms and objects are no longer in the same place, there may be new furniture, the smell is different, and outside the landscape has changed.
- Experiencing difficulty adapting to the changes brought about by the move. For example, they might miss their grandmother if she no longer lives nearby and they can’t see her as often as before.
Preparing your child for the move
It is normal for your toddler to feel sad and concerned about saying goodbye to places and people that were part of their life. Will they like their new bedroom? Will their new educator be as kind as the previous one? Will Dad still come pick them up at daycare in the evening? Here is how you can help your toddler through this major change:
- Plan and organize your move as much as possible. This will make you feel more in control and less stressed, thus in turn making your child experience less stress.
- Announce the upcoming move a few days before your child sees concrete changes happening. For example, before visiting the next dwelling, before you begin to pile up boxes in a room, or a few days before putting up the “For Sale” sign in front of the house.
- Tell your toddler what to expect. Explain why you are moving, and then ask for their thoughts about it and share your own emotions with them. For example, you can tell them: “I’m just as sad to leave our home, but on the other hand, I can’t wait to go play with you at the park in our new neighbourhood.” If you have experienced such a move when you were a kid, tell them the story of how everything happened, especially on the day of the move, so they know a little more about what to expect.
Your reassuring attitude will help your child look at the move in a positive light.
- Invite them to ask the questions they might have about how things are going to happen and what worries them.
- Play “moving” with your toddler with boxes and a toy truck. Playing helps them explore the emotions brought about by this significant change (e.g., sadness, fear, excitement), which might encourage them to tell you about how they feel.
- Read them books about moving. This will show them that other people go through the same experiences and emotions. Reading them a few stories on the subject before announcing the move is also a good idea. This will give them an idea of what to expect and perhaps even a positive perspective of the move.
- Take them to visit your future dwelling and the surrounding environment, if possible. Taking them to their future daycare centre is also a good idea, as it well help them get used to their new environment and appease their fears. Take the opportunity to point out that although there will be some differences, many things will not change.
- Encourage your child to participate in the preparations for the move (e.g., putting their toys in a box). This will make them feel more in control. It is also a good time to prepare a small box with memories from their old home, such as photos or beloved objects.
- Despite unexpected events, try to maintain your routines (meals, bathing, and bed time) as stable as possible. These familiar routines are comforting and will help your toddler experience the transition more easily. It is also preferable to wait until later to wean your toddler or to start potty training.
How to prepare a baby?
A child under the age of 2 can also feel stress from a move, especially if you are stressed by the event. However, there are some things you can do to reassure your baby. For example, take a few slow, deep breaths before cradling them in your arms. This way, you will not communicate stress to your baby. If possible, keep the same bedding for your baby’s new bedroom, as the familiar smell of their sheets and blankets will reassure them. If you must change the bedding, buy it ahead of the move so it has time to soak up the smell of the family. Maintain your baby’s routines; this is what will make them feel most safe. If you have someone babysit during preparations and during the move, ask someone your baby knows well. This will reassure them and limits the changes to which they must adapt.
Planning the day of the move
- Get a babysitter to make this day easier, as you won’t have a minute to spare. Be aware, however, that it may be useful to have your child partially attend the move (e.g., seeing the old dwelling being emptied or your belongings being taken into the new one), as this will make them realize what is really going on. They might be afraid of losing some objects, and even try to open boxes to find their toys. Reassure your child by saying they will get all their belongings back in the new home.
- Remind your child how the day will go, either on the previous day or on the morning of the move. Tell your child who will babysit them and where, and then explain what you will be doing during that time and when you will be together again. Do not hesitate to call a few times during the day to tell your child how far along you are in the move.
- Prepare a family bag containing all the essentials for the day: clothes for everyone, snacks, security blanket with your toddler’s favourite toys, toilet paper, soap, towels, and first aid kit.
- Set up your child’s bedroom first, so that they can quickly find their toys, stuffed animals, comforter, etc. It is best to keep as much as possible the same furniture and the same kind of decoration as in their previous bedroom to maintain as many references as possible. If this is not possible, tell your child that some of the furniture will change.
Helping your child adapt after the move
- Be patient and listen even if you have a lot of things to do. Your toddler needs time to mourn their old home. Your child is necessarily affected by the move, especially if it is caused by a separation or job loss. Help him put their emotions into words.
- Temporarily lower your expectations for your toddler, as it may take several weeks for them to fully adapt. They might be more demanding during this period, wake up more often at night, their stomach may be upset or they might wet their bed again. Every child reacts in their own way, and these reactions will disappear by themselves once your child feels safe again.
- Maintain a stable routine as much as possible. This reassures your child and helps them get used to their new environment.
- Play with your child in your new apartment or your new home to help them discover their new environment in a fun way.
- Visit your new neighbourhood with your child and do some fun activities together (e.g., playing in the park, going to the pool or the library). This will allow your toddler to quickly associate the move with positive things.
- Try to introduce changes little by little. For example, it can be difficult for a toddler to move on a Saturday and go to a new daycare the very next Monday. If possible, wait a week after the move before bringing your child to their new daycare centre. This is not a problem if their daycare remains the same, as it is already a safe place.
Things to keep in mind
Moving is a stressful event for a child because of the many changes it causes in their life.
Telling your child what to expect, inviting them to ask questions, and taking them to visit their new home and surrounding area will help prepare them for the move.
Even if you get a babysitter during the move, it’s a good idea to let your child see part of the move so they can have a better understanding of what’s going on.
Scientific review: Annie Goulet, psychologist
Research and copywriting: The Naître et grandir team
Updated: May 2019
Photos: iStock.com/killerb10 et GettyImages/AleksandarNakic
Useful links and resources
BLAKE, Stéphanie. Je veux pas déménager! École des loisirs, 2019, 32 p.
BRIÈRE-HAQUET, Alice and BARROUX. On déménage! Little Urban, 2016, 28 p.
DELAHAYE, Gilbert and Marcel MARLIER. Martine va déménager. Bruxelles, Casterman, 1992, 22 p.
DE LASA, Catherine and Claude LAPOINTE. Oscar déménage. Calligram, 1998, 32 p.
ROSS, Tony. Je ne veux pas changer de maison! Paris, Gallimard, 2010, 24 p.