After Divorce, Moving with Kids
12 Tips to Make the Move to A New Home — Nearby or Far Away — Easier on Everyone
One of the known facts when a couple divorce is that someone has to move out — if not both spouses. But when you throw children into the situation, it becomes more difficult. Moving with children can be hard enough on the parents, but what about the children themselves?
Mark Lowman, a father to two teenage daughters, moved his family from Atlanta, Georgia to San Antonio, Texas earlier this year. “It was really stressful moving with children, because you don’t know in advance how it’s going to affect their lives, not knowing your way around, not having the family support group there before you. All these things create stress for children and their well-being,” he says. “Not knowing what’s going to happen, you just try to plan for the best, go to the right school, live in the right town, and live in a good neighborhood. You try your hardest to make sure you do what’s right for your kids.”
“My experience with it is, it’s usually it’s a very difficult circumstance separating a parent from kids,” says Rory Gilbert, a social worker, and alcohol and drug counselor in Oak Brook, Illinois.
Gilbert says there are other issues at hand besides the move itself. One of the big problems is leaving the old home, where children had memories of growing up. “I’m seeing a guy right now who’s doing terrible that the kids aren’t going to be in the house where they were born,” he says. “The isolating of the house, which happens quite a bit for financial reasons, is a very different adjustment for everybody, and my experience is people try very hard to not disrupt the kids’ lives, but because of finances, that often ends up happening.”
“It always feels like a step backward. Children had a house, a room. It’s ‘where my friends are.’ It’s a comfort zone, so needing to move is the biggest symbol of the financial difficulties that could happen after divorce,” Gilbert says.
Another issue, says Gilbert, is the lifestyle children aren’t used to but must have after a divorce. “The economic realities of the divorce — kids and parents struggle with that. Often, mom has to go back to work.” According to Gilbert, that could mean less money for things children are used to having, like certain toys and food, or living in a wealthier neighborhood.
“It’s part of the overall picture of what you’re going through in the divorce. There’s so much sadness for a child whose parents are divorcing,” he says. “It’s not always the loss of the parent or the noncustodial parent not there. It’s the whole security blanket of the life. They’re so used to it. If they’re teens, it’s the familiarity of their surroundings.”
Gilbert says that some of his clients have moved away because of things like avoiding abusive relationships. “I’ve got one situation where a mom was trying to escape a very controlling, alcoholic father and going back to where her family was. She moved across states. It’s a very angry, protective move on the mother’s part.”
“It’s not a very typical situation,” says Gilbert, who believes that abusive relationship or not, a move is difficult for all families. “I think that the parents have to try to be as in tune as possible, which gets pretty difficult because the parents are going through their own issues and need caretaking themselves.”
According to Sandy Malawer, director of The Family Therapy Center in McLean, Virginia, the move doesn’t always need to be entirely negative. “It really depends on what age the children are. Younger children do it easier as long as they have their creature comforts, like a blanket,” she says. “I think sometimes, parents feel it’s all bad, but as long as they have their security objects and needs being met, they can do quite well,” says Malawer.
A big part of the move is getting acquainted with a new school. That could mean a child being forced to explain the divorce to classmates. According to Malawer, the best way to explain it is to twist the negative part of divorce into something exciting.
“I think an important part is being able to prepare children with a response so they’re not caught off guard. Today, since maybe close to 60 percent of marriages end in divorce, they’re bound to know lots of other kids at school whose parents are divorced.There are even divorce clubs at schoolSay something great like, ‘I get to have two Christmases. One in the morning with mom, and one in the afternoon with dad.'”
Mark Lowman noticed that the move actually had a positive effect on one of his children. “There are some good things about it. My youngest daughter really didn’t like the school she was in. She had friends at the old school, but the culture didn’t fit her needs very well, so we were able to start over fresh when we moved to San Antonio.”
He says that another exciting aspect of the move to his daughter was the idea of a new part of the country. “She was very excited about getting a new beginning with new friends, a new house, a new city. She loved learning about the different lifestyle in Texas. She saw it as a good opportunity.”
“Some [children] even enjoy it. Kids are pretty resilient,” says Malawer.
Rory Gilbert says that kids sometimes feel like they are alone. Parents must make children realize that nervousness or fear of a new life is expected. “Say, ‘That’s a normal way of feeling.’ That can be very difficult for a parent to say. I think it’s more important to help them figure out what their feelings are. Validate it. Confirm it,” Gilbert says.
HOW TO MAKE THE MOVE EASIER
There are other ways to help make the process a bit easier for your kids. Experts share 12 important tips on how to make the move go more smoothly:
1. Don’t talk to the children until you are 100 percent sure of what you will do.
“Parents probably should not talk to the kids until they have a firm plan because there’s nothing like, ‘Dad may move out next week, or in a month, or in six months,'” says Sandy Malawer, a therapist in McLean, Va.”Kids can adjust to just about anything if they know what’s coming. Say, ‘This is what our plan is. This is where we’ll live.'”
2. When you’re ready to tell the kids, practice what you will say before you let them know.
“Know how to answer the questions before you sit down with the children and at least know what’s coming next,” says Malawer.
3. When you tell them, say it in terms that children will understand.
“Say, ‘Mom and dad do not play well together. We are gonna live in separate places but still love you,'” Malawer says.
4. Realize that no matter what you do, there’s nothing that will make it instantly easier.
“I like to have parents anticipate what their kids are going through and not try to offer quick fixes,” says Rory Gilbert, an LCSW and CADC in Oak Brook, Ill.All you can say is, ‘Things are gonna be OK. It’s hard going to a new school, having a new house. Daddy’s not living here anymore.’ Give them the language to help them process it.”5. But try to remain positive instead of focusing on the negative. “The moving gets to be one of the upheavals of their life. Parents have to be very sensitive to that,” Gilbert says. “Be very sensitive that the kids are going through so many changes and counteract that.”
6. Make sure the children learn where both new homes will be, to feel more connected to the other parent and to help them with directions if in an emergency.
“Familiarize them with the route, so at least a school-age child would get a sense in the distance of how far they really are from the other parent,” says Malawer.
7. Make the children feel at home in both new houses, both the home they live at full-time and the part-time home during visitation.
“I think an older child, a school-age child if one parent is going to be moving – have the child decorate the room,” Malawer says.
8. Let a child talk the way he or she wants instead of asking specific questions, says Gilbert.
“It’s difficult when you ask a child how they’re feeling. You get, ‘I don’t know,’ those kinds of responses to asking, ‘Are you sad?’ Give them the opportunity to let them feel what they’re feeling.”
9. When talking to kids, avoid put-downs geared toward the ex.
“Never, under any circumstances, disparage the other parent, whether they’re still living in the house or separately. Don’t say things like, ‘Your dad has ADD, and he’s always late because he’s a loser,'” says Malawer.
10. Don’t feel bad if you aren’t the favorite parent of the day, according to Malawer.
“The kids will generally feel like they have to have an allegiance at one time. Parents should not take things personally if a child doesn’t want to talk to him or her at the other’s house. It’s just that they feel they have to be at one’s whim and may be disloyal to that parent. Their loyalties have to change according to who’s giving them dinner that night.”
11. Avoid even the smallest argument with the ex-spouse – confrontation prevents kids from settling into a new routine.
“My general rule of thumb is that the kids do as well as the parents do, so if the parents are fighting and anxious, the kids aren’t gonna do as well,” says Malawer. “But if they remain positive and try to improve the situation, then they’re going to do as well as the parents do.”
12. Above all, make sure children know they didn’t do anything wrong, according to Malawer.
“Reinforce that it is not the child’s fault and that parents’ feelings about the children will not change.”