by Megan McArthur
Megan, Ayla and Kai McArthur after a successful relocation
Parents always want what is best for their children and their children’s futures. At times this involves careers that involve frequently moving, or simply being away due to meetings, or in my family’s case, military deployments. The impact of these events on our children can include depression, loss of interest in activities, high anxiety, and problems at school both socially and educationally. Realizing the negative implications and finding solutions that will help ease our children's minds can turn many of those negative aspects into positive ones.
When my husband received his first set of orders that would relocate our family to a different post, my initial reaction was excitement, until I saw the look of anxiety on my daughter's face. We were at dinner and she became very quiet, sullenly pushing food around her plate. I could literally see her mind processing the information into all the negative stories instead of excitement at a new adventure. I had not thought through how all the changes would affect her life. Later after putting her to bed, I found myself on the Internet researching how often we might move throughout my husband's career. How many times would my kids be switching schools? How many times would they have to start over with new friendships and leave behind old ones? Most importantly, how can I help them cope and feel secure within themselves and learn to adapt within their environment?
After some research on the subject, I found that the average American family moves about twelve times during his/her lifetime. Approximately 33% of military families relocate each year. Many times, it is in a civilian populated area where the child might not have the same amount of support and similarities with others that they would being on a military post. Relocations are happening exponentially more than in previous generations.
There is also the question of the emotional stress put on the family by these moves. Emotional exhaustion, financial expenses increasing while trying to adapt in the new location, and the physical work involved in moving may cause parents to show poor and negative behavior as well. In turn, this will put more stress on the child. It may cause them to become more susceptible to peer pressures, and experience physical and emotional turmoil within themselves.
These were all things that I was loathe to have my own daughter struggle with as we moved from place to place. Researching what others experienced with frequent moves, I found that there are plenty of ways to lessen the stress and make the transitions into a new area and new schools easier for the children. Following are a few of my key ingredients to making the next adventure in our lives a successful one instead of a stressful one.
“Read All About It!”
Looking up our “New location” online and viewing pictures with kids is always a great way to get excited about a move. It allows everyone to see what activities are available in the area and get a glimpse of what to expect. My daughter Ayla loves horses above all else. She spent countless hours looking up all the different ranches in the areas we would be moving to and narrow down her “Top 10” choices. It got her excited about the move and reduced some of the anxiety over leaving good friends behind. Reading upcoming events in the local paper also offered a snapshot into the type of community we were headed to. I was able to immediately locate programs for the kids and sports offered in the area.
“What About School?”
Show the kids their new school's web site! Most schools these days have an online presence that you can review and see what is offered. Both of my kids love doing this–It gives them a chance to see what classes are offered, what clubs to join, and the sports they can try out for. Some even have a virtual walk through displaying the actual classrooms and other students. This allows the kids to have a better idea about what they will be walking into once they start school. It also lists school supplies needed and any additional helpful information. Again, this helps lesson the anxiety and gives them that extra confidence they need their first day of school.
“Will I fit in?”
This is a concern for many kids moving to a new area, especially the older ones. Try to find out if there are any clubs in the area that offer things your child is interested in so that they have a community upon moving there. For myself, it was important to find out if there were any clubs in the area designed for military children. My kids’ school had a program called Club USA. It was led by the school's counselor, taking place once a week during school hours. The kids with active duty military parents would come together and have the opportunity to talk with each other about how they were feeling over issues such as a parent’s deployment, a recent PCS (move) or any other related stressors they were dealing with. The kids would also put together care packages to send to the troops as a group. They would write Christmas cards and create drawings to send out, and they would make awards for themselves celebrating and recognizing all of the strengths they had within themselves during these hard times. It was a great way for the kids to feel like they were playing an active role in honoring and representing their families. I’ll never forget how proud my son was to wear the star he made that read, “I am a Military Child. I am a Hero.”
“You’re Leaving again?”
Communication is key in these situations. Letting the staff/teacher know when one parent is away helps the teacher to be prepared for any behavioral changes and be able to assist the child emotionally as best they can. My son has a tendency to “act out” the first few days his Dad is gone. He takes the “I’m the man of the house now” saying to a whole new level! At times, it can be very frustrating, and at others, very sweet. His teachers had the same response. Sometimes his behavior would be very disruptive to his fellow students while on other occasions, he would retreat within himself, not wanting to engage in the activities. Writing a note to the teacher or calling or texting to let them know his father was gone for a period of time helped them realize that it was a time that Kai needed that little extra encouragement in positive behavior. They were very patient, understanding and appreciative for the heads up.
In our eight years in the Military, my daughter has attended five different schools, my son has attended three and we have moved four times. Amazingly, this is much less than an average Military family.
With a little research and the right tools, you can turn a stressful depleting move into a somewhat smoother transition for both parent and child. Communicate with your kids. Allow them to tell you their fears about changes and have them engage in creating solutions. For instance, my daughter did not want to leave her friends. Together, we came up with the idea of getting a special book in which she could write down her friends' phone numbers and addresses and even tape in pictures or things that reminded her of them. This helped ease her sadness about having to leave them. Allow your kids to pack their own things. For my son Kai, it was very important that he knew exactly which boxes held which toys. Having him label them and see that they were "safe" eased his mind. No Transformer left behind! These two small gestures gave them a feeling of control in their lives and allowed them to feel more a part of the situation. It allowed my kids to appreciate their experiences and look forward to the adventure our family was about to embark on without any extra baggage and anxiety.