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“Why are we getting a new house? I like our house.” This is just one of the many questions Hania Lakhani had to field from her then two-year-old daughter as they prepared to move a few kilometres east to Mississauga, Ont., about a year and a half ago. “Aasiyah had a lot of anxiety about leaving,” Lakhani says. She wanted to know what would happen to their house and the playground—and her stuff.
These feelings are normal, says Melanie Vanier, a child psychologist in Halifax. “Not knowing what to expect can be very anxiety provoking. It’s a big change, so it absolutely can be something that is unknown and scary for children.” Talking to your toddler about what’s happening can relieve some of her stress. Naturally, you’ll want to prepare her for all the changes, but you should also emphasize what will stay the same. Focus on the things that are important to her; she may need some reassurance that her family and familiar objects (the kitchen table, and her bed, books and beloved stuffies) are all coming along.
Try to keep the discussion low-key; you want to make sure she’s aware of what’s going on, but don’t overdo it and cause her to worry needlessly. “Toddlers might not be able to articulate their concerns,” explains Vanier, “but as a parent, you want to help them make sense of it in a gentle and concise way.” Take cues from your child to see if more discussion is warranted, or wait until she brings it up herself. It’s important to focus on the positive, but don’t dismiss her concerns. If you sense she’s sad about something, talk to her.
Lakhani found that involving Aasiyah in the moving process helped her worry less. She went to most viewings, and afterward Lakhani and her husband would ask Aasiyah’s opinion of each house. When they purchased their home, they let her pick her bedroom, asked what colour she’d like to paint it and took her to choose a swatch the very same day to help connect the dots. She still had lots of questions, though. So Lakhani and her husband took Aasiyah and her 11-month-old brother on a tour of the neighbourhood and pointed out the park, the splash pad and her new preschool. “You want to make the unfamiliar feel familiar,” says Vanier. “It’s great if you can walk around and help them form positive associations with the new environment.” If that’s not possible, a child can be reassured by seeing photos of the house and surroundings, particularly the spots she might find interesting: the backyard, the local playground and even the closest ice cream shop.
Making your kid an active participant in packing is also a good idea—no, really. It can help her feel like her possessions aren’t just being taken away (but it’s best to do any purging while she’s out of the house or asleep). Aasiyah’s anxiety picked up when the packing began, so Lakhani gave her boxes for her books and toys, and helped her pack her own bedroom. Then she asked Aasiyah to decorate and “label” the boxes using crayons. To smooth the transition, experts recommend dismantling your kid’s old room last and setting up her new room first, if possible. And let her help unpack and put everything in its place; most kids love being able to arrange their own things.
While packing and moving can be a super hectic time, it’s key to stick to your schedule as much as possible. A toddler’s stress can surge if she hasn’t gotten enough sleep or eaten well, so don’t skip naps and keep snacks handy. It’s also best to focus on this big change and to put off others, like potty training. “If your child tends toward some anxiety, it’s overwhelming,” says Vanier. “It can be difficult to tackle any one concern with too much going on all at once."
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