By Carole Van Holbeck, MSAN Mental Health & Wellness Contributor
I grew up a military brat. I was a PCS pro, moving 11 times before my 18th birthday. I have stories, and some of them aren’t very pretty!
I have memories of packing, unpacking, and looking for places to hide so I wouldn’t be in the way. Our dog running away during the confusion of moving day. Looking out our car window watching endless miles go by without much to do. Walking into new classrooms mid-year and sitting alone in the cafeteria. Starting over in a new Girl Scout troop. Leaving the summer before my senior year to relocate to a different state. Leaving behind good friends. Sometimes feeling really excited! Sometimes feeling really sad.
Show of hands! How many of you can relate to this?
Change is always messy. It is not easy to stop life, pack up your worldly possessions, say goodbyes, and move on. But there are some strategies you can employ with your children that will minimize the affects felt during this transition.
Help kids learn about your next duty location. The internet is a great place to start! Make sure to engage your children on an age-appropriate level. Learn about your new installation, the surrounding communities, new schools, points of interest – anything you can think of to satisfy their curiosity.
Keep them as informed as you can throughout the moving process. Make a moving timeline. You can use a calendar to write specific dates on like when the last day of school is, when the packers/movers come, how long you will be in temporary housing, when you depart your old installation and arrive at your new one. Review the calendar daily and remind them when upcoming events will occur. This daily check-in is a great opportunity to answer questions and address children’s concerns about moving.
Keep routines as much as possible. This can be a hard one because moving tends to be a chaotic process. Routine helps children, especially young ones, feel secure and grounded. Parents need to find the time to meet them at the bus stop, prepare dinner, and read a book at bedtime among the boxes and goodbyes.
Involve your kids in the moving process. Even young children can help sort their toys and clothing in preparation of a move. Moving is a great time to donate items your child has outgrown. Have him/her pick out a few small items and put them in a special travel tote or backpack for the trip. Familiar things are soothing in unfamiliar places. Give older children an assignment on moving day. He or she can direct movers, watch pets, or help make everyone lunch.
Stop and listen to kids when their emotions run high, especially the older ones. Sometimes the most important thing we can do for our children is just listen. Moves are harder on older children because their sense of identity is more connected to their peers and social belonging. Honor their feelings. If allowed, encourage them to stay connected to friends they care about through appropriate social media platforms. Help older children find activities at your new installation that highlight interests and encourage peer socialization.
Allow time to say goodbye. Saying goodbye is always one of the hardest parts of a move for me. It is hard for kids, too. If possible, arrange a going-away celebration for special friends. If your move falls during a school year, a classroom party might be appropriate. Make the party a happy one and plan it before packing starts. Take lots of pictures so your children can look at them later. For older children, have a memory book where friends can write notes and contact information for future correspondence.
Make the trip fun. Easier said than done, I know. By the time everything is packed up, you just want to go and get to the new destination as quickly as possible. If you can’t make the trip fun, at least make it comfortable. Have snacks, activities, and travel games in mind. We used to keep a Frisbee and football in the car for our boys. We would stop somewhere once or twice a day on a trip – roadside rest areas, school fields, etc. and take a break for at least 30 minutes. We would eat snacks and run around. It really helped them be better travelers. My parents always stayed at hotels that had outdoor pools. It was a delight to pull off the road and swim every night. You know your kids best and what will help them. Do that!
Ask your kids what they need to feel comfortable in your new residence. For younger children, arranging furniture in a familiar way in their room is a way to provide comfort and security. Older children may want their room exactly the same, or may want to go in a different direction. Involving them in the process makes it feel truly like their own space.
Give your children time to settle in, but don’t be afraid to take action if they aren’t adjusting. It takes a little time to navigate a new environment and make new friends. However, if you sense your child may be suffering from depression because of all the changes seek medical help for them sooner than later.
Military kids are amazing. They have to put up with a lot! These are just a few strategies to help children cope with the stress of relocation. What are your ideas or what strategies have you used to help your children during the PCS process? Share your comments below and help other military spouses learn the ropes!
To learn more about helping kids cope with a PCS move and other mental health resources available to military families, please visit the Military Spouse Advocacy Network’s (MSAN’s) website at https://www.milspouseadvocacynetwork.org.