When considering major transition for children of all ages, what does it look like to transition well? When is it best to begin to talk with them about the impending changes? How do we best help them understand? Are there tangible ways to help?
These are important questions because it is wise to recognize that transitioning well is not always simple for children. Take, for example, moving. Moving from one place to another is a fairly abstract concept for children (unless moving has been a normal part of their lives). Until you actually do move, it can be difficult for children to grasp the concrete interpretation. So it may require more work to help wrap the mind of a literal learner around the concept.
Consider these ideas to help children transition well:
1. It may be best to wait until there is something concrete to tell before you begin to talk with a child about a move. However, as soon as you do know where you are going and have in place a timeline and other details, it is important to introduce moving language to your daily conversations—especially before you begin to make the news public. Helping children process this information privately first creates space for questions, wondering, and clarity. And, of course, it is always better for them to hear it from you than from others.
2. Consider creating space for children to participate in the move. Figure out a few practical ways to create opportunities for kids to make soft choices. These could be simple things like allowing them to choose which bedroom will be theirs (within reason), or letting them pick their new wall color, or letting them decide between two choices on where the couch will go. This will help offer children a level of buy-in to the process, thus lessening the chances of their feeling like their parents are moving and they are simply being dragged along.
3. Involve children in the exciting parts of moving. Before you move, take them with you to see the new home and new school and visit the new church. Let them help in the process of packing up the current home and unpacking and decorating the new home. After you move, check out the local parks together to see which one you like best. Let them choose a new restaurant to try that’s near your new home—or, if all the newness is too much, take them to a chain restaurant they are already familiar with that is near your new home. It might help them to feel like some things have stayed the same. Go exploring together. These positive, fun parts of your new location will offer balance when the feelings of grief become more intense.
4. Find a language the whole family can use so that children know how to say what they are thinking. For example, you might say “old house” and “new house” or “old church” and “new church.” This is a simple way to create clarity. Eventually, the need for this language may fade, but it is helpful in the beginning. One way to help find and create a shared language around your transition could be to read children’s books together that teach about moving; that way, you’d have a relevant story to reference, and it may provide you with some common language you could adopt into your family conversations.
5. In conversation with a play therapist, we were encouraged to recognize the value of assembling a photo album to help a child have pictures that help tell their story. An album may consist of: photos from old favorite places like church, school, neighborhood, etc.; photos of friends and special people from the old home; photos of the old bedroom, kitchen, backyard, etc.; photos from new places like church, school, neighborhood, etc.; photos of new bedroom, kitchen table, playroom, etc.; photos of friends and special people from the new home. At first, a photo album like this one may be used every day. Over time, the need may be less intense. This project helps children reflect on loss as well as begin to embrace a new story. Since every child is different, a photo album may not be necessary, but it can be very helpful for a sensitive child who is struggling to adjust.
It is important to expect and create space for grief around major transitions. Grief shows up in many forms and at some of the most unexpected times. And, because little children cannot always name their struggle, sometimes we may forget that they are still grieving. We may hear ourselves ask questions like, “What is wrong with you?” as children find ways to act out their complex and sometimes confusing feelings. Keep in mind that when children are in the midst of difficulty, they may use all their emotional energy for survival, so it can be much later when grief begins to emerge.
As a pastor who has focused on children and families for most of my ministry, I often hear people say, “Children are resilient,” and it is so true. But their resilience is not always their choice; sometimes they are simply trying to survive. Parents are wise to recognize real feelings, real fears, real losses, and real adjustments to daily living. Resilience may be a bit delayed while doing the hard work of grief. If a child’s normal has included living near extended family, moving may bring a huge shift in your normal in terms of caregivers, family gatherings, sleepovers, birthday celebrations, etc. This transition will not make life impossible, but a child’s grief surrounding the shift will be real.
Transition can be exciting, but for children, it can kind of be like telling a three-year-old, “You are going to get a new sibling!” That news comes with hype and excitement until the child begins to live the reality of the new baby. Newborns are not playmates yet; instead, they require a lot of time from the parents, they claim a lot of the footprint in the home, and they make everyone tired. Newborns are an amazing addition to every family, but when we tell literal learners, “You are going to have a brother,” a three-year-old may imagine another three-year-old who is similar to him, plays like him, and comes fully assembled. Instead, they get a baby who requires quiet, who poops excessively, and who does not know the first thing about playing.
When a child is in transition, whatever that transition is, it is important to remember that it takes time to create a new normal, for the new normal to become familiar, and for it to feel right. It is not impossible—it is just reality.