Moving With Kids, Part IV: What to Do If Your Child Is Not Adjusting to the Move
This is the final installment of a four part series on supporting young children during a family relocation. It provides resources for parents to ease their child's transition and set them up for success and happiness in their new city.
The boxes are empty. The pictures have been hung on the wall. You’re still finding a home for every item and finalizing the organization process, but you’re starting to feel settled in your new routine.
What if your child doesn’t feel the same way? When children have difficulty adjusting after a family relocation, it can make the parent feel stressed, worried and anxious. While you knew beforehand that it would take time for your child to feel comfortable in their new surroundings, but weeks are stretching into months, perhaps even years, and you’re wondering what went wrong. What can you do to help your child when they’re still struggling with the change?
Step 1: Identify Behavioral Changes
First of all, document all of the behavioral changes you’re noticing in your child that are majorly different from before. This list of symptoms will help you determine how to approach the problem. Should your child talk to a therapist? Keep a lookout for the following troubling signs:
Drop in Social Interaction
Your previously happy, outgoing child is starting to withdraw. They don’t jump to participate in family activities. They don’t talk as much. They may start spending a significant amount of time alone. When your child starts avoiding social interaction when they didn’t before, it’s a sign they’re having trouble with the adjustment.
It’s expected that children’s grades may fall after transferring to a new school. It’s part of the adjustment process. But if your previously high-achieving student now consistently underachieves and loses interest in schoolwork, it may be cause for worry.
Avoiding Conversations About Their Feelings
When you try to talk to your child about how they feel, do they change the subject or avoid your questions? Children may not want to talk about an issue that’s bothering them, but bottling up all of their feelings is not productive and will only contribute to other issues.
Lose the Will to Make Friends
When your family first moved, was your child excited to meet new people and make new friends? If you’ve seen a drop in that excitement, with your child less and less interested in trying to form new friendships, it’s definitely cause for concern. Was there one event that caused them to withdraw? Have they experienced bullying at school?
No Interest in Usual Hobbies
You offer to sign your child up for the town basketball team, but they shrug and act indifferent. A distaste for an activity or hobby that used to excite them may cause you to worry. Is your child depressed?
Change in Appetite
When children refuse food and start to lose weight, or binge eat and begin to gain weight, it could indicate either a health issue or a side effect of the tough adjustment period. It’s time to talk to their doctor and schedule a physical exam.
Sudden Increase in Aggression
When a child begins to lash out at school, at siblings or at parents, it’s clear they are dealing with unresolved anger about an issue or situation. An unusual increase in aggressive behavior must be dealt with right away.
Changes in Sleep Patterns
Is your child waking up at odd hours or having night terrors? Are they unusually sleepy during the day? Extreme changes in sleep habits can be a sign of depression and should be evaluated by a professional. If untreated, it could begin to affect both their physical and mental health.
Step 2: Going to a Therapist
Once you’ve noted all of your child’s symptoms, talk to their pediatrician. Explain your concerns without your child present and ask them for advice on how to proceed. They may refer you to a psychiatrist, psychologist or clinical social worker, depending on your child’s symptoms. While it’s normal for children to have a rough time over the first few months after a relocation, talk to your doctor if you feel like the symptoms have continued for too long.
Discuss Concerns with Teachers
While your child’s doctor is a good source of advice, so is your child’s teacher. The teacher interacts with the child on a daily basis for hours at a time, so they may be able to tell you if your child is beginning to make progress, is staying the same, or getting worse, especially when it comes to interaction with classmates and grades.
Research Until You Find the Right Person
Your doctor may offer a referral, or you may have to find a therapist on your own. When you’re reviewing the profiles of professionals you are considering for your child’s treatment, make sure they are licensed to practice and they are covered under your health insurance plan. Determine the costs beforehand so you aren’t surprised at the first appointment. You also want to find a professional who has experience dealing with the problems your child is facing.
Ask These Questions
To determine if a therapist is right for your child, ask them the following questions:
- How long have you worked with children or teens?
- What experience do you have?
- What is your specialty?
- How do you handle communication with parents?
- Are you available in the event of an emergency?
Meet with them beforehand and get a feel for their communication style. Will your child feel comfortable sitting down and talking with this person? Will they feel at ease or on guard? It’s important that your child trust the therapist in order to achieve progress.
Understand the Different Types of Therapy
The therapist will determine what the best counseling setting is for your child. They may decide that one-on-one cognitive behavioral therapy is best. This type of therapy involves discussing issues with your child alone. Group therapy may also be an option. This is when multiple children meet with the therapist and all work on issues together. Family therapy is also used, and this is when parents and child meet with the therapist together, perhaps with siblings present as well.
Your child’s therapist may prescribe one, two or a mixture of all of these types of appointments, designed to benefit your child the most.
Prepare Your Child for the First Visit
For young children, explain that you will be visiting a doctor who will help them feel better, but there won’t be any shots or physical examinations. The doctor will be talking with them about how they feel on the inside.
Older children may feel angry or upset at the prospect of going to a therapist, but explain that it’s the best decision for your whole family and that everyone is going to work on making life better.
Step 3: Continue Offering Your Support
When your child is struggling, you may feel depressed yourself. It can be hard for parents to watch their children encounter a difficult, challenging time in their lives. Remember that your main goal is to continue offering the strong support they need in order to overcome all obstacles in their path.
Make Your Child a Priority
When your child wants to talk, make it a priority. Make time in your schedule for one-on-one interaction and play time with your child. Schedule family activities and keep them as engaged as possible in your plans and everyday life. When your child feels like they are a central part of the home and your life, they will be drawn into living in the moment. When they have an opportunity or an invitation to try something new, support them wholeheartedly... within reason.
"When either of my children has expressed an interest in a new activity, or made a new friend, I have wholeheartedly supported them, although at times this has been a real juggle. I’m very aware from my own experiences, and the work that I do supporting families with relocation, that moving to a new place, making new friends and adapting to a new culture can be exhausting. Sometimes kids (and parents!) just need to curl up - for a cuddle or with a familiar book - and take some time out. I strongly encourage this too."
Set a Healthy Example
Make your own mental health a priority. If your relocation was due to a job loss or a divorce, you could be struggling with depression on your own. Seek help for yourself as well – you need to be mentally, emotionally and physically healthy in order to set an example for your child.
"Be a good example in meeting new people. Kids tend to look to how you react in circumstances to know how they should react. You have to set the example in putting yourself out there and meeting new people. Try inviting your neighbors over and talking to other parents at school functions. Any way that you can help facilitate your children in finding their new community is a good thing."
Check-In With the Therapist
Stay in constant communication with your child’s therapist. While they may maintain patient confidentiality over some aspects of what your child may tell them, you should stay open to making changes in your own behavior and your home life if the therapist suggests doing so. This is why it’s important to select a medical professional you trust if you do opt for therapy for your child.
Maintain Confidence and Positivity
No matter what happens, it’s important to maintain positivity. When you are confident in your child, they will be confident in themselves. Support them and listen to their feelings, but also encourage them to join you in your own optimistic view of your new life.
Emily Shedek and Emily Robertson (@themovingmom) offer ways for parents to listen to their children's feelings:
"Let kids know that it's ok to be sad/angry/upset about a move. Be sure to keep an open dialogue about your move and how you are feeling about it and ask them how they are feeling. We say it isn't a great idea to dwell on the sadness, but it is definitely ok to express it and let kids know that it is a totally normal reaction. Always try to end a conversation talking about the new, exciting things you have to look forward to at your new location."
Show Love and Comfort Whenever Possible
Your child needs to know that you love them just the way they are, especially if they’re feeling lonely. Comfort from a parent can help free them from the foreign, negative feelings that may have been pervading their thoughts. In addition, let your child know they can talk to their old friends any time they want!
Emily Shedek and Emily Robertson (@themovingmom) add a final thought:
"Make it okay to still communicate and reach out to family and friends that may be far away now. With technology, it is so easy to stay connected, so make it a priority to help your kids make those connections. Your old friendships didn't die, they are just going to look different now."
Take It Day by Day
Focus on one day at a time. Try to accept where your child is at and work on making progress step by step. You may not see drastic changes overnight, but over time, with the help of your support system, teachers, doctors and therapists, you can collectively address and solve problems in your child’s life.
Congratulations! You made it to the end of the four part series. To navigate back to previous chapters, click below:
- Moving With Kids, Part I: Prepare Your Children Before the Move
- Moving With Kids, Part II: Help Your Children Settle into Their New School
- Moving With Kids, Part III: Help Your Children Make New Friends
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