Have you ever had one of those crazy nightmares where you found yourself in a strange place that was full of people and items you recognised, but thrown together in a peculiar way or weirdly altered by your subconscious? Or perhaps in your dream you started out in a room that you recognised, but then stepped outside the door and discovered a completely alien environment.
If you have had one of those dreams, I'm sure you'd agree that the effect is horribly unsettling. Yet that's what parents often inflict on their children in real life. It's called 'moving house'.
Researchers agree that moving house is one of the extreme stresses of life, right up there with losing a parent or being sacked from your job. It's easy for a parent to become so consumed by the emotions, expense, complications and practicalities of a move that they accidentally start treating their kids like pieces of furniture- something to be simply picked up and relocated. And then they may feel surprised when their kids start acting out their feelings of dislocation in an unacceptable way, whether at home or at school.
At one of the daycare centres where I work, the director noticed a distinct correlation between kids who had recently moved house and a sudden onset of disruptive behaviour. Often in these cases the parent or parents had innocently tried to simplify the move by taking the kids to daycare on the morning of the move, spending the day moving without the hassle of children underfoot and then picking up the kids and taking them 'home'- to somewhere they'd never seen or been in their life. Take your mind back to that disorientating dream, where the people and the furniture are the same, but everything else is completely weird. That's what those kids experienced.
When you think about it, it's hardly surprising that children would have an emotional reaction to such a change. Yes, children are very flexible creatures, but you do need to give them a fighting chance to adapt. It's important to put yourself in your children's shoes and try to look at it from their point of view.
The time to talk to your children about moving house is when you first start thinking about it. They need time to get used to the idea, just like you do. Do you know what your children like and dislike about where you live? What will they miss? What will they be glad to leave behind? It's important to address these issues with children who are old enough to express an opinion- and that might mean a 3-year-old as much as a teenager. And even with smaller children, it's important to talk to them about moving. They understand a lot more than they can express. TELL THEM what's happening.
It might sound impractical to take your children with you when you go house-hunting, but if you can manage it, it may make the move a lot smoother for all concerned. If your child is freaked out by the carvings on the gateposts or the spooky cupboard under the stairs, the best time to find out is BEFORE you pay a deposit or bond.
When you decide where you're going, take the kids to have a look. Let them see the place they're coming to, and let them have some input into how the new place will work for them. Which room will be theirs? What colour will you paint the walls of their bedroom? Where will you put the swing, or the trampoline? Is it closer to the beach or the pool? Try to create some excitement.
And TALK to them. Tell them, in simple terms if necessary, why you're moving. Be truthful. If you're sad about having to move, tell them so- don't hide it. Children will usually sense your hidden emotions and worry about them. Those are the sort of things that translate into behavioural problems.
Try to be positive; point out the advantages of the move to them. Will they have a bigger bedroom? A room of their own? A bigger yard? A playground or park nearby? Will it mean mum or dad will have more time at home to play with them?
If they still get upset about the idea of moving, and some very sensitive children will, you will need to comfort them and do some work to acclimatise them. Again, be honest and positive. Emphasise the advantages of the move, even if the only advantage is that you're not going to be thrown out on the street for not paying the rent or mortgage you couldn't afford. Tell them about a time in your own life when you were sad about moving. Make it clear that it all worked out okay in the end... you survived... good things can happen in new places.
Don't forget to keep telling your kids you love them, and remind them how much their cuddles mean to you at a time of great stress. If you yourself are completely traumatised- perhaps by losing your home to the bank, or being evicted- this is no time to distance your children from you by pretending everything's fine. You need each other's love and understanding more than ever. Great sadness can strengthen your family's bonds of love, if you let it.
Maybe you can enlist another adult to help you move and step in when the kids get tired and grumpy, so that you can let your children take part in the actual process on moving day. Most children like to help when the task concerns them- dump their furniture and boxes in their new bedroom and leave them to it, popping your head in now and then to encourage them, help them or suggest a break if they look overwhelmed.
Above all, be kind to yourself, and be kind to your kids. Set up your places to sleep first, and take as much time as you need with the rest.
Remember to eat properly and feed your kids properly; hungry kids are grumpy kids (and hungry adults aren't much better). Yes, it's stressful moving house, but put the brakes on your alcohol consumption. It's no time to drink yourself silly- your kids need you.
Ask for the help you need to stay positive and in control. Most people are ready and willing to help you and are just waiting to be asked- swallow your pride and you might be surprised how delighted your friends are to lend a hand, even if it's just to take the kids to the park when they're getting under your feet.
Above all, when something goes wrong- and I've yet to experience a move where something DIDN'T go wrong!- breathe deeply and remember that 'this too will pass'. Yelling and crying with frustration will not help your kids settle. Try to model acceptance and flexibility, and you might find that you deal with the move better too.
And the very best of luck to you at a terribly challenging time.