Having just accomplished the somewhat herculean feat of moving our family from Florida to New York, and having had a month or so to let the dust settle, I find that I am now in a position to offer some advice on how to move to a new home with a toddler. Feel free to take it or leave it of course but, if you’re anything like me (and you happen to be moving), you could probably use a little help.
1. Start talking about it in advance (but not too far in advance)
It’s only fair to give your toddler some warning that his whole world is about to be turned upside down. But, if you start talking about it months and months in advance, it’ll probably just lead to a bunch of confusion and nervousness. You know your kid best, but I’d say it makes sense to start mentioning it about a month in advance. We began by explaining that we were going to move to a new home soon and talked about all the things that would be different and the same there. We would mention it from time to time as things came up. (“Oh look, there’s a garbage truck! That garbage truck is green. The ones near our new home will be white.”) After a while it just became a fact. We are going to live in a new home soon. Even if he doesn’t really understand what that means, it’ll be easier for him to deal with all the change if he has a reference point to work from.
2. Get more specific when it’s almost time to go
When it becomes fairly obvious that something’s going on (because, for example, you’re putting all your earthly possessions into boxes), it’s time to get very clear and specific with your child. I made a book for my son that outlined all the steps we would need to follow in order to get from point A (living our regular lives in the only home he remembers) to point B (living somewhere totally different with tons of new routines). It included things like going to look for a new home, packing everything into boxes, the moving men coming, taking a road trip to our new home, etc. You don’t have to write a book (or listen to my advice at all) but if you do decide to explain the process to your child, I’d be as specific as you think he can handle. The great thing about a book is that you can read it over and over (the same as any other book). But if you’re not into book writing, you can just talk about it often. Or show him some pictures of things he’ll see often in his new home. It’ll help if you use the same (or similar) language each time.
3. Pack things your toddler won’t miss first
This requires a little bit of planning, but it’ll pay off in the long run. The longer your home looks familiar and safe (rather than a city-scape of precariously stacked boxes), the better. Pull things out of closets and out from under the bed and pack them first. That way, you’ll have a lot of packing done, but your child won’t notice a difference. Plus, in the final, all bets are off, dash to pack everything as quickly as possible, you’ll be so far ahead of the game it’ll feel like a piece of cake. Well, maybe not a piece of cake, but a sugar cookie at least.
4. Get your toddler involved in the packing
Once it’s time to actually start taking your home apart, allow your toddler to be part of the fun. There are probably a lot of things that he can actually help you with. My son carried books, for example, from the bookshelves over to the boxes and then I packed them inside. Other things that toddlers could help pack include safe kitchen utensils, clothes, and shoes. If this sounds like more trouble than it’s worth (or if you’re lucky enough to have professional movers do your packing for you), I do urge you to allow him to be a part of packing up of his own toys and books. He’s probably going to be pretty shocked to see his room completely empty. And he may wonder (even if he can’t totally express it to you) whether he’ll ever see his beloved toys again. Talk about what’s happening as you (and he) pack the toys. (“Bye bye red barn! See you in our new home! Have a good trip!”) If you made a book or have been talking about the process, this would be a good time to refer back to the concept of the moving men taking your things from your current home to your new home. You could say something like, “This way it’ll be really easy for the moving men to get all your toys to our new home.”
5. Get your toddler involved in the unpacking
Once you arrive in your new home, allow your toddler to really explore. Show him which room will be his and let him open the cabinets and closets, peer under radiators (if they’re off!), and look out the windows at the view. Talk to him about where his crib (or bed) and other furniture will go, and get his opinion on where to put things. When the furniture and boxes arrive, let him watch as the boxes are opened and all your familiar objects are revealed. Allow him to pull his own toys, books, and clothes out of the boxes and spend some time getting reacquainted. Let him be in the room (or standing in the doorway) as you put everything in place and solicit his help tidying up all the toys and putting them in their places. All this will help him to feel ownership over his new space and a sense of familiarity in his new room.
6. Talk often about your old home
It would be easy to assume that your toddler has forgotten about his old home after a few weeks of living in his new one. I’d venture to say that isn’t true. Transitions are hard for everyone, toddlers in particular, and his whole life is in transition when there’s a move. Even if he can’t express it, he misses his old home and the familiarity of his routines. Talking to him about his life in his old home will help him feel more grounded (my old home existed, that wasn’t a weird dream I had, Mommy’s talking about it, everything’s okay). And it’ll help him work through his feelings of homesickness and acclimate more quickly to his new surroundings. Be prepared for some crankiness and clinginess, though, during this transition. You (and his other caregivers) are his only link to normalcy. He’s going to want to have you nearby. Even the most independent kids may need some extra TLC. I know it’s hard to give him extra attention when you’re trying to settle in yourself, but whatever you can give him will go a long way. Hang in there. You’ll all feel at home soon enough.