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Tips for helping kids adjust to moving

By Mary Umberger

Special to the Washington Post

When Pat Tanumihardja moved with her son, Isaac Wheatley, from Seattle to Fairfax, Va., in April, she presumed that the transition would be no big deal for him. After all, she figured, a toddler is going to be adaptable because his world is so limited.

She figured wrong.

Isaac displayed the 3-year-old's equivalent of stressing out, Tanumihardja said. His potty-training successes generally evaporated. His sleep habits unraveled.

"He had been sleeping very well through the night but started waking up and coming back to our room after we moved," she said.

Whether kids are 3 or 13, it's seldom a breeze for them to adapt to new surroundings.

The first few weeks of school can be trying enough, but particularly so for newcomers who are moving from across town or across the country. Although it's easy to advise "just give it time," those aren't particularly comforting words to the teary kindergartner or the middle-schooler who's flipping out over the prospect of having not a single friend.

"Along with big changes come big feelings," said Debbie Glasser, a clinical psychologist who moved her family from Florida to Richmond, Va., about seven years ago and experienced the changes she had been counseling others about.

When her preschool-age son insisted on sleeping on the floor of his brother's room for weeks (instead of in his own bed in his new room) and her freshman daughter fretted about who she would sit with in the new high school's lunchroom, Glasser said she realized that in the frenzy of pulling off the move, she hadn't been on top of what her kids were feeling.

"That was a wake-up call," she said. "I needed to pay more attention to what they were going through."

Along with unpacking boxes and learning their way around the new neighborhood, experts say, parents need to focus on ways they can help their children better adjust to the transition. Here are five tools and tactics for coping.

1. Visit the school beforehand. A new school can be scary, but seeing it before the child begins can combat that fear of the unknown.

"Kids worry that they won't know where the bathroom is or where the lunchroom is," Glasser said.

Also, parents should inquire whether the school has an "ambassador" or buddy program that pairs a new kid for at least a while with a student who knows the ropes, she said.

2. Appeal to a child's sense of adventure.

Kimberly Pace's daughter, Lauren, had just begun kindergarten when the family moved in October from Millersville, Md., to Gainesville, Va., and she realized that uprooting her would be difficult.

"We had to make it the most exciting thing she got to do -- ever," Pace said. "The first month is tough, no denying that. But you can make it easier on a little one by portraying it as an adventure."

Lauren helped to buy plants for the new yard. She started horseback-riding lessons and got to pick out furnishings for her room, Pace said.

Glasser said it could help build a little excitement if the parents and kids were to jointly research the new location, through books or the Internet -- talking about such attractions as local museums or sports teams.

3. Allow the child to claim his or her room. The new bedroom is probably the first place that needs to feel like home.

Ask younger kids -- maybe even the older ones -- to create artwork for their walls, and give them a voice in choosing wall colors and furnishings, Glasser said.

"Give them a sense of autonomy and control, within reason," she said.

"I've had clients design the kids' rooms with personalized paintings or decals with the kids' names before they move, so they feel as if it's theirs," said Elsa Huxley, a Washington real estate agent.

4. Use technology to your advantage.

Parents and kids can use Facebook and Listservs to network their way to new friends.

5. Call on professional expertise.

Pace said she regards helping families adjust as a part of her job as a real estate agent.

"Once my clients find a house, I find them a list of all the moms' groups, and sometimes dads' groups," she said. "I also get a list of sporting groups, like lacrosse or soccer. I find theater groups, and classes for ballet, tap, dance, etc."

Glasser said it's important for parents to make themselves available to their kids as questions and concerns arise and to keep dinner times, bedtimes and other routines consistent with what they were before the move.

In doing so, Glasser's young son gradually weaned himself off the floor, she said, but she acknowledged that the youngest kids can find change surprisingly difficult.

"Oh, my goodness, he was off the wall," she said. "Everything was new to him, and he didn't quite have the verbal skills to express himself. Kids that age can't process emotions as well as older kids; they don't have the coping skills."

Her daughter, Emily Schenck, filled some idle time while waiting for the adjustment to take hold by beginning a journal about the experience. The journal evolved into a book written by mother and daughter, called "New Kid, New Scene: A Guide to Moving and Switching Schools." The duo interviewed dozens of former "new kids" to learn what worked (and didn't work) in making the transition.

Schenck, now a college student in a study-abroad program in England, said the biggest lesson she learned from the move was patience.

"Making new friends proved to be harder than I thought," Schenck wrote in an email. "I guess I unreasonably expected everyone to want to be good friends with me, without making any effort. I learned that everything takes time and making good friends was not going to happen right away."