For military children, moving encompasses the best and worst of military life. Kids in military families say they enjoy seeing new places, experiencing new cultures, and meeting new people, but they don’t like saying goodbye to the old places and friends, or being the new kid at school.
Terri Barnes, the author of Spouse Calls: Messages from a Military Life, says it’s important to talk to kids about the good and the bad of each move to help them through the experience. An Air Force spouse, Terri shepherded her three children through dozens of school changes and moves, as well as writing extensively about mobility as a military family columnist for Stars and Stripes.
“Transitions are part of every life, military or civilian,” she says. “Change is hard. Moving is hard, especially when we’re in the thick of it, but when we make it through as a family, it makes us stronger together and individually. Successful transitions give kids confidence they can navigate other challenges.”
“Transitions are part of every life, military or civilian … Successful transitions give kids confidence they can navigate other challenges.”
Terri offers these suggestions for healthy ways to guide children through the emotions and experiences of moving:
Keep a Positive Attitude
Military parents and other experts agree children of any age react and respond to the attitudes of their parents. A parent’s positive outlook about moving fosters optimism for kids. Don’t promise a new place will be better, and don’t pressure kids to be happy about moving, but do show an open mind about the new experience ahead.
Model positive thinking and hopefulness. Moving involves anxiety and uncertainty for kids and parents alike, and honest age-appropriate conversations are important. However, it’s best to vent strong adult reactions and frustrations with other adults and not with children.
Make Time to Grieve
While it’s important to be positive, it’s also necessary to be honest about the difficult parts of moving. Moving involves loss, so it is healthy and necessary to grieve those losses. Give children time and space to talk about the move and cry about it if they want to. Let them know they are not alone in their sorrow.
In ways appropriate to each child’s understanding, parents can talk about what they will miss when they move, reassuring kids it’s okay to be sad, that sadness won’t last forever, and the family will stick together throughout.
“When my kids were sad, I didn’t want them to think they were alone,” says Terri. “Sometimes I talked about the friends I would miss and how I was sad too. At the same time, I reassured them we could live through it together.”
Remind kids about previous move experiences and talk about how they felt before and after. This helps them remember how they succeeded in a new place before, and they can succeed and make friends again. If they are open to it, talk to children about what they would like to do the same or differently in an upcoming move. Encourage them to set goals and to recognize ways they have grown through the challenges of moving.
Not every departure is a sad one. Sometimes a move takes a child away from a difficult school situation or peer group. Talk about what kids are happy to leave behind and ways they hope their new school or community will be different. If appropriate, brainstorm ways they might be able to create better situations or relationships at a new place. Talk about what those difficult situations or relationships may have taught them.
When it comes to military moves, so much is beyond the control of children—and parents too. Look for ways to give kids some control over their circumstances:
- Find ways kids can help with preparations for the move.
- Saying goodbye is important. Set aside time for children to say goodbye to friends, teachers, and any significant people in their lives. Talk to each child about how and when he or she would like to say goodbye. Some kids love a party, but others may prefer more low-key farewells. Parties can be overwhelming for some children, so be attentive to their wishes and temperaments.
- Let children plan the décor and arrangements for their bedrooms and play spaces in their new home.
- Encourage kids to look for interesting activities in the new community. Is there a national park or another attraction nearby? An interesting museum or park? Help them look forward and plan ways the family can get to know their new neighborhood after the move.
The days before, during, and after a move can be chaotic. Try to maintain familiar routines as much as possible. Establish moving traditions and rituals, like a special take-out meal on moving day, building box castles after unpacking, or placing a traditional first picture or piece of furniture in a new home.
Although there are plenty of ways to handle transition in healthy ways, no one really gets used to moving, Terri cautions. She emphasizes the importance of setting reasonable expectations and giving kids time and space to adjust after moving.
“When it comes to moving, practice does not make perfect. It’s a new world each time.”
“Each move is different. Everyone in the family will experience it differently and have emotional reactions that require care and attention,” she says. “As kids grow, moves will probably get harder instead of easier, because friends become more and more important to them. They will need more time to reconnect and find friends. When it comes to moving, practice does not make perfect. It’s a new world each time.”
Growth comes from facing challenges in healthy ways, and Terri says it’s good to help military kids remember every family faces difficulty, not just military families. For any of life’s challenges, children benefit from open communication and encouragement to look for ways to grow through difficulty.
“I never wanted my kids to feel sorry for themselves or think military life was all hardship. There are so many positives to this life. It’s healthy to accept the good and the bad, to learn how to handle the challenges that are part of every life. It’s not just about surviving one move—or ten. It’s about learning to survive and grow for a lifetime.”
Terri Barnes is the senior editor at Elva Resa Publishing and has written and contributed to several books about military life including Spouse Calls: Messages From a Military Life, and Stories Around the Table: Laughter, Wisdom, and Strength in Military Life. Terri’s three military children attended more than 25 schools from Pre-K to high school graduation.
More helpful information about transitions for military children on SeasonsofMyMilitaryStudent.com: