Leaving friends and familiar places behind can be hard for kids – and especially difficult for teens. Here’s what parents can do to help.
The preceding years had been tough ones for Linda. After a year-long battle with cancer, her husband had died. When Linda finally felt ready to begin dating, a chance reunion with Sam, her high school sweetheart, unexpectedly led to a rekindled romance and engagement. Since Linda was reluctant to put her 14-year-old son, Evan, through another major change, Sam began job hunting in their community. But when a comparable job wasn’t available, the couple decided that Linda and Evan would be the ones to relocate.
While Evan was happy for his mom, the move was hard on him. After growing up in a small, tight-knit community, where his two closest friends lived next door and his school’s entire eighth grade class numbered 100, Evan was suddenly “The New Kid” in a huge high school and a strange city.
Evan’s experience is hardly uncommon. Each year, one in five American families move, including more than 10 million children. School officials and psychologists agree that being uprooted is hardest on teenagers. At a time in their lives when they’re differentiating from parents and investing heavily in peers, the announcement of a move can feel like a death sentence for their whole world. Angry and sad about having lives turned upside down, they’re also understandably anxious about what lies ahead.
Topping the list of anxieties is how they’ll fare in the new school socially and academically. Newcomer teens and ‘tweens worry: Who will I sit with at lunch? Will anybody talk to me? Will I ever have friends again? Will I make the team? And what if they’ve covered stuff I’ve never had, and I’m hopelessly lost in classes?
Caring parents, who are dealing with their own stresses, want to help. But sometimes it’s hard to know just what to do to comfort a hurting teen. Gone are those wonder days when we could instantly produce a social life for our kids by arranging play dates with the children of friends. As Carolyn Janik explains in Positive Moves (Grove Press), “Most teens would rather die (or live as hermits in their rooms) than have their parents obviously participate in trying to help them make friends.” But if it’s hopeless to play friendship matchmaker, there remain strategic ways parents can provide vital support:
Listen and Share Feelings and Concerns
Adolescence is an intensely private time and teenagers don’t always feel like talking to their parents, but when they do, it’s an enormous relief to know parents are ready to listen with empathy and understanding. “When I was having a bad day,” says Evan, “it really helped that I knew I could talk to my mom.”
In the weeks before and after a move, everyone’s emotions are apt to be on overload. Even when a move is exciting and desired, irritability and bouts with the blues are common. When family members share their worries and disappointments, they become more manageable.
At any age, it’s a lot easier to face the tough stuff when you can count on your loved ones to be in your corner! And when a parent responds to a teen’s sadness by saying something like, “Gosh, I’m feeling blue today, too. What can we do to make ourselves feel better?” she sends the reassuring message that “I’m on your team, and we will get through this together.”
Maintain Family Rituals and Spend Extra Time Together
Maintaining family rituals is another vital way to provide emotional support. Our Sunday evening ritual of lighting a candle and sharing our “thankfuls, worrieds and hopefuls” helped sustain our teenager and entire family through two tough moves.
While it’s not always possible, it helps for at least one parent to be more available in the weeks after a move. “There were days when Evan would come home from school, and we’d just get in the car and go somewhere together,” says Linda. “Even when he didn’t feel like talking, I think it was just reassuring to know I was there.”
Close friends can continue to be a major lifeline of support as well. Encourage your teenager to find ways to stay in touch, whether by email, letter, phone or even cassette tape. If distance is not prohibitive, help plan visits. “What helped me the most was going back and spending time with my two best friends,” says Evan. “My mom would take me there for the weekend at least once a month.”
Become an Investigative Team: Knowledge is Power
Find out as much as possible beforehand about prospective schools and what the community has to increase the chances of finding the best possible setting for your child, and reduce anxiety about his expectations. Perhaps most important, this empowers a teen by offering some control over the move.
Ask your teenager to make a list of his concerns and needs: What types of classes, clubs and activities top his priority lists? Is there something she’s always wanted to try, but never has? Prior to the move, encourage your teen to contact schools and request catalogues, student handbooks and information about audition dates for clubs and teams.
The Chamber of Commerce, community center and the local YMCA are additional resources for finding out about classes and activities. Subscribe to the local newspaper and check out travel guides to gain a feel for the new community and what it has to offer. And for families involved in church, scouts or other community organizations, hooking up with a compatible branch provides another helpful network.
When feasible, arrange for your family to visit the new community prior to the move. Tour prospective schools and talk with the counselor, principal and students. Ask to see a sample yearbook or a copy of the school newspaper. Find out about available newcomer services. Some schools provide incoming students with a “buddy,” special counseling sessions and newcomer get-togethers.
Adjusting to a new school is easiest if the switch is made at the beginning of the school year. Encourage your teen to let his teachers know when she’s having difficulty with unfamiliar material. Teachers are usually glad to help new students and can also steer them to tutoring assistance if necessary.
Helping your ‘tween or teen research activities offered prior to the school year is another great way to help ease the transition. “I think one of the best things I did was checking out what was available for Evan in the summer,” says Linda. “We found out his new school had a marching band camp he could go to. He’s shy, and it was hard for him, but it helped him find a niche and friendly kids immediately. Just knowing he knew kids he could sit with at lunch the first day helped a lot.”
Whether your ‘tweens or teens love music, drama, sports or computers, encourage extracurricular involvements. They’re a great way to build confidence, enjoyment and new friendships.
There Is an Upside to Moving
Research indicates it can take anywhere from six to 18 months for most children to adjust to a move. If all seems to be falling apart on the home front, it helps to keep in mind that “This, too, shall pass!”
Sometimes parental guilt rears its head. Perhaps the big job promotion or remarriage has been marvelous for you, but the kids are miserable. To banish bouts of guilt, parents can take heart that there’s a significant up side to moving. ‘Tweens and teens who have successfully weathered the challenge grow in self-confidence and adaptability. As high school senior Erin Sabo wrote in an essay, “The experience of being a new student is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it will make my freshman year of college next year easier. I have overcome many of my fears and my shyness.”
Evan found that the move forced him to grow and change. “I had to keep pushing myself to keep an open mind,” he says. “Change is something we have to learn to cope with in life.”
Another benefit of moving is the exposure it provides to a greater variety of people, cultures and lifestyles. “In my old school,” says Evan, “everybody knew everybody, and we all came from similar backgrounds. But in my new school, I can walk down the halls and hear three different languages being spoken!”
Weathering a move can also bring a family closer. “When you work together as a family on a common problem,” says Dorothy Greenwald in Coping With Moving (Rosen Publishing Group), “the bonds grow stronger and the feelings deepen.” And when caring parents give children plenty of love and support for life’s tough times, they provide both the roots and the wings essential for a successful journey to adulthood.
Lynn Slaughter is a mother and freelance writer.