The number one question my husband, Philip, and I continue to receive is how our three children (Nicolas, 10; Josephine, 7; and Florence, 5) have dealt with our move from Munich, Germany (their home for ten years) 5,982 miles to Laguna, California in the US. Since we feel like our moving story may serve as a useful example of how to gently guide your children through a potentially tricky situation, we are happy to share it with you here.
Part 1.: Listen. And then listen some more.
Nothing, absolutely nothing, was as important to Philip and I than to ensure our three children's emotional wellbeing when we moved from Germany to Southern California at the beginning of this year. From the moment we became aware that there was a likelihood of us leaving Germany, Philip and I sat down to devise a plan of how to guide our children through what was going to be a life-changing process. This may sound dramatic, but for a child, that’s exactly it: life-changing, as in: it will change the trajectory of their life. And having heard firsthand accounts from friends of what a 'bad move' can do to a child, we were eager to make this possible life–change a wonderful one.
First and foremost, we knew we had to prepare our children well and so Philip and I had started ‘testing the waters’ well before we knew that a move was even a certainty: casually, as we gathered for dinner, we would bring up the idea of a possibly living somewhere else–maybe Southern California where it is warm?- with our then nine, seven and four-year-old.
It helped that both Philip and I were genuinely excited about the prospects of living somewhere else for a while. We had lived in many different places before relocation to Munich ten years prior and felt that now was a good time for a new adventure: we no longer had a newborn (our Flori was four by now) and we did not yet have teenager (with our son Nicolas being nine)–in our view, the kids were at a perfect age for a move!
Thus, we did not hide our enthusiasm for what was potentially to come but rather attempted to use it as the catalyst to dream: how cool would this family adventure be? Possibly in sun? Exploring a new part of the world together as a family? What would we be looking forward to? What were we hoping to gain?
We listened to our children when the move was still a dream, and we listened even more intently to them once we knew we were leaving Germany for sure. We listened to what the children said and especially how they said it (their gestures, pauses, and intonations never lie) in order to gain an in-depth understanding of what their little minds where thinking and, possibly, struggling with.
Our four-year-old did not seem to really understand the concept of a move and we realized that what mattered to her was feeling safe within her family setting. As long as Flori felt that her parents, as well as her siblings, remained calm and positive and united about the move, she would be happy too.
Our seven–year old was deeply concerned with having to leave her friends behind. And having witnessed a disheartening farewell scene at school a week prior (where a beloved teacher departed, leaving 11 girls – including Joséphine - crying uncontrollably in the schoolyard) we knew we certainly needed to pay a lot of attention to our daughter (and think of some strategies on how to guide her through her pain-whatever its degree may be).
Our ten–year old son Nicolas was certainly the calmest and open-minded of our children regarding the move, although he also seemed to worry about leaving his two best friends–as well as his beloved soccer team–behind.
By gathering around the dinner table, sharing our thoughts and listening to our children, Philip and I discovered the following:
- we received an in-depth understanding of each of our children’s feelings on the move which, in turn, allowed us to anticipate certain tricky situations (leaving friends) and prepare accordingly (organize personalized farewell booklets created by the classmates, final sleepovers at the best friends’ house, scheduled face time dates, etc.). By being proactive and leaving little room for surprises during this sensitive time, we were able to navigate the transition to a new home calmly and steadily.
- how important it was to provide our children with a safe space in which they could share their thoughts freely and with ample time so they could do so at their own pace. Allowing our children room to express themselves, made them feel heard and seen; it made them feel valued and fully included in the moving process. In the end, it made them feel safe.
- by expressing their individual view on the move, we watched the children’s sense of self grow: each child realized that what was of concern to them, whether it was worry or excitement, was not necessarily the case for their brother or sister. Our children were exploring themselves: while they were all sitting in the same boat, they learned that it was ok to think and feel differently about the (big!) journey ahead–and to own that feeling confidently despite other people maybe being of a different opinion. What an important life lesson to learn!
- that this growing sense of self had another valuable side effect (which we especially saw come to life in our ten–year–old): by clearly identifying his thoughts and feelings, our son began to see that he also had the power to decide what was going to happen next. He came to understand that instead of relying on us, his parents, he was able to turn a scary thought (like having to enter a classroom as the new kid with all eyes on him) into a positive one (where he envisioned a kind classmate offering him a seat–which, in the end, is exactly what happened).
In short, he realized that he could control his happiness to a large part and that it lay within him. We love and encourage this mindset with our children because we strongly believe that happiness should not depend on anything that you may want / can lose / can be taken away from you (as there is always something!) but that it is a daily choice you carry within yourself. (I know, it’s a tricky concept - to both children and adults - but one we try and work on daily).
- as our children’s sense of self grew, so did their emotional awareness. Since the move was 'big deal' in nature - bringing to light everyone’s thoughts and emotions–it worked like a catalyst in encouraging our children to further develop their emotional 'antennas'. By sitting together as a family and sharing our thoughts, our children started to see and feel that this move did not only have an impact on them and their life, but also the rest of the family, most notably their siblings. We encouraged our children to ask themselves: How is my sibling feeling right now? Is she happy or in distress? Is there anything I can do to possibly make him feel better? Or better not say, as this would feed into his pain? What a wonderful way to fine-tune one's ‘sensitivity chip’!
Listening to our children during this entire transition from one home to another was hands down, the most important initiative in securing their emotional wellbeing. For us, these daily family meals encouraged honest communication, paved the way for a calm and positive journey ahead and strengthened our family bond further.
And a strong-dare I say unbreakable?-family bond was definitely what Philip and I wanted as we would soon need to tell the children that they would be without their dad .... for four months. Talking about a tricky situation!
For the second part of our moving story, click here.