Parenting AdviceRaising Healthy KidsChild anxious

This week’s topic is inspired by the housing market, upcoming moves to new schools, new homes and new teams. Stay tuned for the “change” theme with spring as we anticipate graduations and moving on to middle and high school as well as college. In my work, the seasons bring about themes so my intention is to keep you up to date as things shift.

My kid already suffers from anxiety, how will he deal with these changes?

Rosie and her son Peter were sitting in the waiting room when I opened the door and immediately noticed that something didn’t seem right. Rosie asked if she could speak to me first in private before I met with her son. (This usually means something is coming and I know that parents reserve this request only for the big stuff). She sat down and said,”we’re moving…and Peter doesn’t know yet…I am so worried how he will take this…”

I agreed that this was a big deal and asked her to tell me more about the move. She explained that they were moving about two hours away, changing schools and their entire communities for her husband’s work. I sat quietly for about a half a minute (you get comfortable with silence in therapy!) and then said some version of, “he can do this…you can do this….change is a part of life and the better we can help kids navigate things that are out of our control the better off they will be….if he senses that you are scared then he will be scared…”

We spent the next 20 minutes going over how mom would tell him in therapy that day and I predicted some questions he may have as well as how his emotions may vary. We brought him in and he asked what was going on. His mom told him that the family would be moving over the summer for a change in dad’s work. Peter acted as I thought he might- he asked a lot of questions, he asked about their pets, he asked about his soccer team, he asked about school, friends and if they would ever come back to visit.

While on the outside it appeared that Peter asked and wondered about the same things any kid would when faced with a move, a child with anxiety typically processes it a little more intensity.

A child with anxiety will likely think about this so much that it becomes consuming. Their grades may start to drop, they may seem distracted and difficult to get focused, and they will likely get very sad and then angry.

And while all of those things sound heartbreaking there are things that you can do to help your child with a move or big changes in general. First, assure them that you will help set them up to meet friends and that you will practice with them how to make and keep friends (this is typically a top stressor for kids and under stress many children could benefit from the assurance). Empathy will go a long way, they need to feel understood in their sadness, you want to be sure your child does not feel alone in their worries. Sometimes parents try to act overly excited, positive and cheerful about big changes and that alienates a child from them.

Second, explaining why you have to move (or make a big change) is often very helpful. Explain to your child that an opportunity has come available to your family and how it will impact the family in positive ways. Get into the details (as is appropriate) and tell them how long you weighed this out and how you considered the pro’s and con’s and came to this conclusion. Don’t be afraid to show your child your mixed feelings about the move.

Third, consider the timing of a move (or big change) carefully when possible. Children tend to handle these types of changes better when they are toddlers or elementary school age. Once middle school and puberty starts, changes are already happening to them that feel so unpredictable that they sometimes don’t have the emotional bandwidth or self-regulation to handle the thought of moving.

Last, let your child be as involved and have some sense of control with the move or changes. Children like to help look at new houses, choose their bedrooms, shadow at schools, and say goodbye to their friends on their terms. Doing this well, is a balancing act of having a positive outlook into the future as well as honoring and grieving the present and past not just for your child but for yourself as well.

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