Just moved to Philadelphia or the surrounding areas? Just moving a few blocks? A move of any significance is stressful, especially on families. Our Center City & Main Line pediatricians have some tips for weathering the transition.
Change is hard! Other than dealing with the loss of a loved one or a serious family disruption, moving is, perhaps, the most challenging change that kids (and adults) face. Moving 5 blocks in Center City disrupted my home life for months. Although excited about our new home, we were tired, stressed, and easily aggravated. How much more difficult it must be for a family or a child to move from their city or community? Just ask Riley, Disney/Pixar’s delightful middle schooler, in the brilliant movie Inside Out. On the big screen, her personified emotions battled for her attention, as her personality “changed and evolved.”
Why is change so difficult? The answer is simple—the human brain does not like change! During our first year of life, our brains triple in weight, mostly the result of BILLIONS of new neural connections. Although much of this brain growth is pre-programmed, so much of it is also “experience-dependent neuroplasticity”. In other words (all jargon aside), our experiences with our caregivers and surroundings “teach us”, or wire our brains to learn, familiar patterns and recognize familiar from unfamiliar. Our sense of what is familiar continues to develop throughout our life, but this occurs most intensely during childhood when we are experiencing so much for the first time. We grow to depend on, or to “attach” to, that which is familiar, and this gives us a sense of security. Our patterns of behavior are like tracks in snow, more easily traversed with each subsequent trip.
Change is possible and even desirable at times, but the unfamiliar upsets us. Driving out of the deepening tracks forces us to screech and spin our wheels. This “change” triggers the more basic portions of our brains – our emotional and body-control centers – to resist. We breathe hard, increase our heart rate, become agitated, cry, and possibly even scream. Of course, this exposure to the unfamiliar is crucial for our existence. It forces us to learn new things or handle new challenges—our brains change based on our experience. We learn and hopefully become more resilient over time. But all of this work going on inside our heads is exhausting.
A move to a new location bombards our brains with new, unfamiliar experiences. Prior to our move, we experience so much of our lives automatically without thinking. We take so much for granted—our surroundings, familiar paths we travel, familiar faces, schedule, and how these elements of our existence respond to us. This leaves us with abundant energy to tackle new tasks, explore new experiences, or challenge our development. With a move, we must devote so much of our energy to making the unfamiliar familiar again.
In simple terms, with change our brains are swirling, dealing with the unfamiliar, revving up our emotions, and depleting our energy to learn new things and face formerly automatic, new tasks and experiences.
How Moving Affects Children of All Ages
- If you are a baby, less than a year, this chaos may just mean you can’t soothe as well and have a hard time getting the basics done – Eat, Sleep, Poop! You might also decide to regress a little—roll a little less; smile a little less; babble a little less; engage in new things or with new people a little less. However, with the limited memory of infancy comes easier adaptation. Life goes on….
- If you are a toddler, struggling to define yourself apart from your parents, and working on all sorts of new skills like walking, taking, and learning how you can affect your environment, a new setting is a new opportunity. However, as a toddler, you require a lot of patience and energy from your caregivers, whose gas tanks are inevitably running low. Mutual understanding suffers. You have no choice but to tantrum, resist sleep, or seek mischief. You’ll show them who’s boss!
- If you are a preschooler, you are continuing to master new skills. Your world is already colored by an active imagination that is blurring reality and fantasy. New skills and challenges in a fantasy-filled world make you crave control and consistency. With all the upheaval in your environment, you cling to your parents, act like a toddler, become a “control freak,” or your anger and frustration seep through that sweet veneer you’ve been cultivating.
- If you are school aged, watch out! You are losing friends, the community into which you have settled, and the surroundings you have groomed to fit your emerging personality. Confusion descends from lack of understanding the nuance of your parents’ motivations. Sadness sets in. Anger surfaces. Fear evolves. Worry develops.
- Finally, if you are a teenager, struggling to discover who you are and what makes you “tick,” intense emotions erupt. So much is already changing: your body, your thinking, your worldview. This additional transition just makes it harder to cope. Like your school-aged self, you experience the entire range of emotions, but like a toddler, the intensity of your emotions is way out of balance with your ability to control and understand them. How could your parents have done this to you? Why me? How am I supposed to make new friends, learn and excel with all these voices in my head?
Of course, the more intense, the more sensitive, the less adaptable you are by nature, the harder it is to cope. If you are one of these kids, you especially need help.
How Moving Affects Parents
It’s not like we as parents have nothing to think about! Change is hard for us also. We must settle into a new community, new job, or new relationships. All this change interferes with everything we do automatically in our lives. Our patterns of behavior are disrupted—the routine becomes effortful, draining our energy to deal with all the new challenges we must face constantly, including our kids’ RAPIDLY CHANGING BRAINS.
What should we do, as parents, caregivers, or simply people who love our children? In Inside / Out, Riley’s mother initially suggested that Riley keep smiling and stay sweet, to help her father who was “so stressed.” Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear swirled in her head. Riley withdraws and wants to run away. Bad move, Mom! I know you are stressed out, but this doesn’t help.
More than ever, kids need to hold on to what is familiar. The turbulence in their heads leads to emotional storms—tantrums, unpredictable outbursts, torrential tears—or even worse, withdrawal, which is inevitably the “calm before the storm.” Fortunately, over time the emotional storms can be relieved by a healthy release of emotion and reestablishment of security and understanding. With this comes resilience—a new understanding of the nature of change and new internal tools and strength to cope.
Tips for Families Who Are Moving
Try the following:
- Don’t squash emotion. Think about from where it is coming, based on your child’s developmental stage. Help them understand by giving them words for the emotion you are witnessing: “You seem sad? Angry? Scared?” Sometimes having a word for how you feel clarifies confusion.
- Frequently “check in” with your kids. Ask them how they feel. Give them space to answer in their own time. Children of different ages process at different rates and different ways. A seemingly silly answer one moment may clear the way for a more serious reflection when the next opportunity arises. Even if they say all is “fine”, keep reminding them you are there to listen.
- Look for spontaneous acts of love and affection. Kids need to know that their “base” is secure. This usually means that their nuclear family is still there for them.
- Don’t expect adaptation to happen quickly. Security and attachment does not develop overnight. With infants, it takes months. How much more difficult this is for a brain with familiar patterns ingrained already!
- Consider roleplaying, visualization, or mindfulness relaxation. These activities help the brain begin to experience the new reality more automatically, with less energy expenditure and less emotion. “Practice makes Perfect,” even when it comes to routine patterns of life.
- Think of ways to let your kids keep some of the old ways present. Familiar decorations, although possibly evoking sadness, recreates familiarity. Leverage technology—maintain old friendships with Skype, FaceTime, online games, or phone calls. Long gone are the times of waiting days, weeks, months for words from familiar faces. The world of the Jetsons is now!
- Get involved. Living in limbo prevents the brain from creating new “tracks in the snow.” Find a religious organization, school, team, community center. It’s better to jump in and make new tracks than endlessly spin your wheels. The sooner you settle into a new routine, the faster the brain can more effortlessly deal with the new challenges of routine development.
- Get plenty of sleep. Even if you are not as active as you were before the changes, your brain uses a lot of energy as it navigates new patterns and copes with the eruption of new emotions.
- Watch out for signs of depression. This can be insidious and appear differently in kids at different ages. Watch out for the following: too much or too little sleep; change in appetite; persistent moodiness, anger or outbursts; withdrawal from typically enjoyable activities; and refusal to verbalize feelings in a supportive environment. Don’t hesitate to seek professional help!
- Finally, as parents, take care of yourself. Arrange a date night. Go out to dinner. Have a drink. Watch a movie. I recommend Inside/ Out!
Good luck, and remember, we are here to help!