Kids Anxious about Family Move
Dr. Laura, There is a strong possibility that my family will be moving cross-country this summer, but we don't know for sure yet. The kids are aware because we traveled to a job fair for my husband. My middle child is getting very clingy, acting out a lot, and waking up screaming at night. What can I do to help him with this transitional time?
Your middle child is expressing anxiety: being clingy, acting out, having nightmares. Let's assume that your suspicion is correct and he's anxious about the uncertainty of moving. How can you reassure him?
You don't say how old your son is, but generally it's best to address kids' fears head-on. You might start with: "I know sometimes you feel a little worried, but I will ALWAYS keep you and the other kids safe, no matter what. We will always be together as a family. We will always take care of each other. We will always love each other. We will always have fun together, no matter what."
Then you might ask him if anything is worrying him. If he tells you anything specific (which may or may not include a possible move), just empathize, don't argue or try to talk him out of his feelings. ("Oh, you were worried about that spider in the kitchen? That was scary, huh?" or "When you think about Daddy getting that new job and us moving, you worry about missing Grandma. I know, we would miss her an awful lot.") Expressing these feelings is important, because if he can't express them they are a lot more likely to come out as nightmares or acting out.
You might, though, discover that he is worried about something that hadn't occurred to you. Some kids assume that if Daddy will be working in another state, the rest of the family won't be with Daddy. Some worry that the whole family will move and leave them behind! He may even be worried that you will just leave the house one day and never come back. I heard of one little boy who was told the family was moving and refused to sleep anywhere except next to his mother's bed so she couldn't leave without him.
Once he's had a chance to express his worries and you have empathized with him (and maybe shed a few tears for the things you would miss in your current neighborhood), you can reassure him that you will have a wonderful life together wherever you go. If he will miss school, you can point out that your new town will have a terrific school. If he will miss Grandma, you can point out that she will visit, and of course you will visit her. If he will miss playmates, it's a harder sell -- you have to honor that loss -- but you can reassure him that visits, email, and phone calls will keep them connected, and that new friends are waiting for him.
Just talking with him about your fantasy of what life could be like in your new town should be very reassuring to him if you keep emphasizing that you will all be together and that you will take anything important to him (his bed, his toys, his pet.)
Finally, your general approach when a child is anxious and therefore clingy and acting out is to help him feel more secure. It may seem silly to you, but to him his very survival depends on you, and he is feeling afraid right now of losing you. So when you separate from him, even just for an hour (or even to go cook dinner in the kitchen!) tell him where you are going and when you will be back. Don't ridicule his need to stay connected to you, just address it matter-of-factly without making a big deal of it. "You can stay close by me if you want, but I'll be right here on this bench if you want to play in the sandbox, and you can always look up and see me. We'll be at the park for half an hour, and then I will come and get you at the sandbox before we leave."
BTW, if you want to know more about helping kids with a move, write again when you know for sure you're moving, and we can talk about that.