Ask the Expert: Advice from a professor of psychiatry on helping your child deal with change
“Ask the Expert” is an ongoing series where we get expertise from individuals in a field that relates to all aspects of moving and travel. If you have suggestions on a type of expert you would like to hear from, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Moving can be overwhelming. There are lists to make, boxes to pack, addresses to change and endless cleaning on both ends. But for kids experiencing a move, the journey is different. It can be exciting, scary and confusing all at once.
As moms, we’re always concerned about how our kids’ life experiences impact them. But for Moving Moms, there is an added worry about whether the transitory lifestyle could be damaging to impressionable little ones.
We reached out to Dr. Gene Beresin to find out more about young people who face major transitions in their lives and what tools we can use as parents to ease them through it. Beresin is the executive director of The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital, a full professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and senior educator in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Mass General.
Beresin said he hasn’t seen any research that specifically targets children of families that move frequently. But he offered this advice for Moving Moms:
Know your child. Beresin said it’s important for parents to recognize their child’s temperament, which he described as “the behavioral wiring that kids come into the world with.” Some children are naturally very adaptable and have a more open and optimistic mood. Some get along easily with their peers and other are more shy. Temperament makes a big difference on how your child adapts to change. Kids who like variety may have an easier time with a move. Children who like to keep a strict daily routine for things like eating and sleeping may find the change more challenging when those things are disrupted during a move.
Age matters. The age of your child also plays a role in how they will handle a move. Beresin said infants are so dependent on their family that a move doesn’t make much of an impact on them. By kindergarten, children are just starting to separate from the family unit and begin to learn a school routine. They are also learning what it means to be in a peer relationship, so moving at that age will start to get more difficult.
The most difficult age for a child to face a transition like moving is typically in the middle school years, Beresin said. That’s because for those adolescents, everything revolves around inclusion and finding a sense of identity.
By the time young people are in high school, they are becoming more independent and have an easier time with moving because they can utilize social media and other tools to stay in touch with long-distance friends and family.
Elements of the family. Beresin said the makeup of a family will also play a role in how children adjust to change. For kids who have no siblings, it may be more difficult to cope with the transition than for those in families with a big brood. Larger families essentially have an internal community and often the older children help to care for the younger ones.
The parents also play an important role in the family dynamic. Beresin said if a move is particularly difficult on either the mother or the father, kids will often pick up on it. So it’s important to check in with your spouse and be aware of how they are handling the move, too.
“If parents get depressed, isolated or are away from their community, it affects the kids,” he said. “Parents have to be resilient.”
Get involved in your new community. As soon as you arrive in your new hometown, Beresin suggests that Moving Moms start looking for ways to become an active member of the community. Whether it be a spiritual group, community organization, country club or sporting affiliation, put yourself out there. The faster you start to make connections as an adult, the faster you can network and start helping your child make connections, too.
“The kids will not find their own way unless you help them,” Beresin said.
Strive for familiarity. Kids love a home base so Beresin said some preschoolers could find a move to the house next door extremely upsetting based solely on the new, unfamiliar territory. He suggests that no matter how far away you are moving, parents make an effort to make the new surroundings feel like home. That means keeping the same rituals in your day, like reading a book before bedtime or eating as a family at the table. Whatever your family did consistently before, try to resume as soon as possible after the move. Arranging the child’s bedroom in a familiar way is also helpful. Make sure familiar objects like pictures, books and stuffed animals are set up in a similar way to their old bedroom, if possible.
“Try to maintain a sense of continuity despite the move,” Beresin said
Keep your kids in the loop. As soon as you find out that your family is moving, tell your kids. This gives them plenty of time to start getting used to the idea and gives them the opportunity to ask as many questions as they want to about the process.
“Kids have big ears so if they hear you and dad talking about the move to Kansas City and they don’t know where that is, it could be China for all they know,” Beresin said.
And remember that, depending on their ages, the biggest concern they have may be whether the family fish will get to come to the new house. And for them, that is major – so reassure them that Goldie is coming along for the journey. Then keep them involved in the process by having them collect their friends’ addresses so they can write notes back and forth.
Make your lifestyle a learning experience. The biggest benefit for kids who move frequently is that they appreciate diversity because they are exposed to more cultural groups and geographical regions than most young people. Beresin said that can be very exciting, educational and inspirational.
“If there is communication and education about the culture, the kids who go abroad who I know can feel isolated or they can feel that they are on an adventure,” Beresin said. “Make it into a learning experience. This is life.”
-By Emily Shedek
* For more tips from Dr. Beresin about moving with kids, check back Monday for Part 2 of this Ask the Expert topic.
Gene Beresin, MD, MA received a BA in music from Princeton University, and an MA in philosophy along with his MD from the University of Pennsylvania.
Dr. Beresin has won a number of local and national teaching awards, including the Parker J. Palmer “Courage to Teach” Award, given annually by the Accreditation Council of Graduate Medical Education to 10 program directors from all medical specialties. He was also awarded the American Psychiatric Association and National Institute of Mental Health Vestermark Award for Outstanding Teaching, and the Harvard Medical School Department of Psychiatry Cynthia M. Kettyle Award for Medical Student Teaching. He has published numerous papers and chapters on a variety of topics, including graduate medical education, mental health and media, eating disorders, personality disorders, and child and adolescent psychiatric treatments.
About The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds:
Based at Massachusetts General Hospital and led by a team of Harvard Medical School faculty members, The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds is a web-based resource that educates parents and other caregivers about the psychological development and emotional well-being of children, adolescents, and young adults who struggle with behavioral, emotional, and/or learning challenges. The Clay Center features the expertise of its nationally-recognized doctors who create engaging and educational mental health content delivered in a wide variety of multimedia formats, including blogs, audio podcasts, online videos, interactive social media, and live online discussions. The content from The Clay Center encourages resilience in individuals and families while increasing the awareness of mental health disorders. To learn more, visit www.mghclaycenter.org.