What Do the Children
Really Feel, and
How Can They Be Helped?
Moving can be difficult for children and many parents do not know how to help. Pre-planning and understanding children's needs help.
by Laura L. Herring, MA, SCRP
Reprinted with the permission of the ERC from the April 1999 issue of Mobility
"Momma, hold my hand tight, I'm scared!" Sitting next to a child and his mother during a recent flight, I could not help but hear his plea as the plane was being prepared for take-off. His mother patted his head, held his hand, and said, "Don't worry."
But it was obvious to me he was still terrified.
It all sounded so familiar. This is how many children (and some adults) feel during a relocation. They fear the unknown. They need to be reassured that life will continue with its familiar pattern of activities with playmates or baseball teams or cheerleading squads or Eagle Scouts. Some parents seem to know just what to say, and what to-do to ease their children's fears before, during and after a move. Others are so overwhelmed with the relocation experience itself---getting school, dental, and medical records, finishing up projects on the job, fixing up their home for sale, and preparing for the move-that they are not even aware of their children's insecurities. And, there are parents who are aware of their children's fearfulness, but do not know how to reassure them because they, too, are feeling unhappy and uncertain about their future.
To ease these and other stresses of relocation, more and more companies are providing proactive family support services as part of their relocation policy.
Tony Quintos, relocation vice president, director of Citicorp, Tampa FL, says, "Citicorp
has offered these services for years, but it really wasn't until I relocated with my three-year-old son, Alex, that I really realized how valuable these types of services are. We were able to ask for information we could use to access pre-schools. My wife, Karen, and I could gain valuable insight into what Alex was going through by speaking with our consultant on the phone. Having moved once with and once without the services, I am a firm believer in their value to the employee, spouse, and child."
What types of situations do parents and children face when moving? Following are three actual cases. Each shows how listening to the need, creating a plan of action, and engaging in attentive follow-up allowed for successful outcomes. These cases demonstrate what some children actually feel and how they can be helped.
Donna was upset and called her relocation consultant. Donna's four-year-old son, Matt, was having difficulty falling asleep at night. According to Donna, Matt would become very quiet and solemn approximately one hour before bedtime and would begin to cry when it was time to go to bed. Whenever Donna would try to soothe matt and talk to him, he would become so distraught, he could not express himself.
Donna reported that her husband, Steven, had been working in the new community for the past four months. He would commute home every other weekend. When Steven was home, Matt would become upset if he could not be with his father, even for short periods. Matt would cry when it was time for Steven to return to the new location. Donna reported that reassurance did not help Matt.
Donna's consultant provided three suggestions:
- Keep Matt's schedule as close to "normal" as possible. Avoid changing mealtimes or bedtimes. Try to re-establish their bedtime ritual, with Donna reading a book to Matt as she had prior to Steven's departure.
- Have Steven call every night to talk to Matt. The conversations did not need to be extensive. It was important that matt have some understanding that Steven was not leaving forever, but he was working in their new town and that matt and Donna would be joining him. If it was unrealistic for Steven to call nightly, the consultant suggested that Steven make an audiotape of himself reading a few of Mat's favorite bedtime stories. These tapes were to be played only at bedtime since bedtime was the most difficult time in Matt's day.
- Donna and Matt were to go out and buy a new stuffed animal. Donna was to inform Matt that the stuffed animal's father had to leave for awhile and the stuffed animal was sad. It was Matt's job to help the stuffed animal feel better by playing with the stuffed animal, reading him stories or just talking to the animal, reassuring it that he will be with his father again very soon.
The Consultant spoke with Donna two weeks later, at which time she reported that Matt was doing much better. Donna had reestablished the family's schedule and no longer would allow a showing of the home to interfere with their mealtimes. Steven and Matt sat down together and Steven recorded several of Matt's favorite storybooks. Matt looked forward to hearing one of the stories at bedtime, rather than becoming distraught.
Immediately after talking with the consultant, Donna and Matt went out and purchased a soft, cuddly bear that "goes everywhere Matt goes" according to Donna. Donna witnessed matt soothing the cuddly bear, telling the bear it was okay to miss his daddy and that he would be with his daddy soon. Matt still missed Steven and stayed by his side on the weekends Steven was in town, but the nightly crying episodes ended.
Sherry was very concerned about her 16-year-old daughter, Denise, and called her consultant. Sherry and her family had moved into their new community approximately three months earlier. Their town of origin was a smaller community in a somewhat rural setting. Their new home was in a suburb of a large eastern city. Life there was faster and the people less friendly.
Denise initially was excited about the move, as it would afford her recreational opportunities that their smaller, rural town could not. But once the move occurred, Denise an outgoing individual, found it difficult to break into any of the social groups at school, and became discouraged. According to Sherry, Denise would go to school, come home, and go straight to her room where she would spend her time doing homework or talking on the telephone with friends in the old town. When Denise was with the family, she would "mope around..always looking as though she was about to cry', according to Sherry. Suddenly, Denise moved to a position of negotiation. As they still had family back in the old town, Denise decided she wanted to return to finish her junior and senior years of high school. Sherry and her husband, John tried shrugging off and ignoring the suggestion, but Denise was relentless. John was a "bottom-line" type and just wanted to tell Denise to forget about returning, as he did not want to break up the family unit. Sherry, on the other hand, was less convinced that a return to the old town was not the right thing to do.
The consultant arranged a conference call with Sherry and John. The focus was to clarify each of their positions, brainstorm options, and move toward resolution of the problem. Sherry and John reached a compromise that consisted of the following:
- Although they agreed it was not the ideal solution, arrangements could easily be made for Denise to return to their town of origin to complete high school.
- The following deal was to be presented to Denise: If, after six months and a continual demonstration that she had made every effort to adapt to the new town, things were not any more comfortable, Denise could move back to the town of origin to complete her senior year of high school. An outline of the things Denise needed to do in order to demonstrate that she had made an effort included getting involved in groups or activities at school, church, and/or the community. The activities were all things that she had been involved with prior to the move, such as volleyball, horseback riding, and singing in the church choir.
- Sherry and John agreed to maintain a united front in proposing the plan and following through.
In subsequent conversations, Sherry reported that Denise reluctantly agreed to the proposal. She involved herself in the agreed on activities and began developing a social circle. Denise was asked to school dances and had several boys vying for her attention. After her junior year ended, Denise returned to the tow of origin for a two-week visit. On her return, Denise told Sherry she enjoyed her visit very much, but it was nice to come home.
Pre-planning Makes a Difference
Diane and her husband were very concerned about their children's response to their relocation. Both children, a son, 8, and a daughter, 10, were very active and social. Their daughter was active in soccer and their son already was showing signs of "greatness" in hockey and lacrosse. The father was not sure that his son could find coaches and sports programs that could match the quality of athletic programs in their current location.
The children went to private schools and were well into the beginning of school at the time of the relocation offer. Before accepting the transfer, both parents agreed to postpone the family move for a year and agreed that the husband, the employee, would commute weekly.
When the family was offered family transition support services, Diane spoke with her consultant about her concerns. The consultant immediately began researching resources in the new community.
Simultaneously, with the consultant's guidance, Diane made a proactive plan that included:
- visiting the new location over spring break
- visiting the new school and having the father meet with the coaches and athletic directors
- making plans to get the children involved in new activities quickly
- involving the children in activities in which they were interested
- having both parents present the move as a positive opportunity
The consultant's strategy was to keep the parents focused on the positive so that their own insecurities would not be passed on to their children. Children are barometers for parents' emotions. This consultant's goal was to provide the right resources to alleviate the parents' anxiety. Thus, the consultant researched a variety of sports activities including baseball, soccer, hockey, and lacrosse. A summer soccer camp for the daughter and a hockey and lacrosse camp for the son were located.
Once the parents had verified information about the new community, they could communicate an honest, positive view to their children. Both children were enrolled in the summer sports camps before the move.
Prior to arriving, both children know they would be attending day camps and meeting other young people soon after the move. Their daughter attended soccer camp the week after they arrived at their new home. When she wanted to go on vacation with a friend from the old community the second week, Diane called her consultant to discuss the idea. The consultant listened and provided support so that Diane felt confident when she made the decision that the trip was a good idea.
Since the children his age were on vacation when they arrived, Diane's son was lonely. Having made advance plans, she was able to keep him looking forward to the summer lacrosse camp and help him weather the loneliness he felt the first few weeks. By the time camp was over, he had established new friendships and one again felt confident.
"Counseling parents on how to present relocation information in a positive way is an important piece of our family transition support services", says Olivia Holt, relocation manager, Pepsi-Cola Company, Somers, NY. "As a parent, I know how a parent's attitude influences a child's reaction. Our family transition support services have trained M.A. and Ph.D. level consultants available to talk to our employees and their spouses to guide them through issues with their families. It is a key component of our program's success."
Right before takeoff on my recent flight, I turned to the little boy in the seat next to me and asked him if he liked sports. He said he did, and he told me all about Michael Jordan. I told him that Michael Jordan flew three or four times a week and that I know Michael Jordan's mother would never let him fly if she thought it was unsafe. I gave USA Today's sports section to his mother and suggested she read him an interesting article during takeoff. The mother winked at me and smiled. She took it and began reading.
Knowing what to do and when to do it is all a part of helping children (and their parents) land safely after relocation.