It's not easy being new to a school and community. Help your child cope during the transition.
The preceding years had been tough ones for Linda. After a year-long battle with cancer, her husband died. When she finally felt ready to begin dating, a chance reunion with Sam, her high school sweet-heart, 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 only 100 students, 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 knell for their whole world. Angry and sad about having their 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 older kids 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 her book Positive Moves: The Complete Guide to Moving Your Family (Grove Press; $8.95), “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 their 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 an exciting and desired one, 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 Rituals and Spend Tiime 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.”
Encourage Your Child to Maintain Contact With Old Friends
Close friends can continue to be a major life line of support as well. Encourage your teenager to find ways to stay in touch, whether by e-mail, 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
Finding out as much as possible beforehand about prospective schools and what the community has to offer not only increases the chances of finding the best possible setting for your child, but reduces anxiety about what to expect. Perhaps most important, it empowers teens by offering some control over the move. Ask your teenagers to make lists of their concerns and needs: What types of classes, clubs and activities top their priority lists? Is there something they’ve always wanted to try, but never have? 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, recreation department and the local Y’s and community centers are additional resources for finding out about classes and activities. Subscribing to the local newspaper and checking out travel guides gives a feel for the new community and what it has to offer as well. And, for families involved in community organizations, hooking up with a compatible branch provides another helpful network.
Help your ‘tween or teen research activities prior to your transition.
“I think one of the best things I did was checking out what was available for Evan,” 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.”
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, and 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 teens to let their teachers know when they’re having difficulties with unfamiliar material. Teachers are usually glad to help new students and can also steer them to tutoring assistance if necessary.
Whether your ‘tweens and teens love music, drama, sports or computers, encourage extra-curricular involvements. They’re a great way to build confidence, enjoyment and new friendships.
Know That There’s an Upside
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’ve 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. 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 author Dorothy Greenwald in Coping With Moving (Rosen Publishing Group; $17.95), “the bonds grow stronger and the feelings deeper.” 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.
HELPING YOUR CHILD COPE WITH A NEW ENVIRONMENT
- Talk, talk, talk: Initiate frequent conversations with your child to gauge his feelings about the new school. Be straightforward: For instance, you could say, “You seem unhappy – are you sad about missing old friends or our old neighborhood?” Sympathize with his sadness about moving, but try to shift the focus to the positive. Provide the opportunity for your child to vent or he’ll hide his real emotions from you and try to deal with his bad feelings on his own.
- Take a tour: Go with your child to check out the new neighborhood. Drive around town and check out parks, skate parks, movie theaters, swimming pools, etc.
- Get him connected: Ask teachers, coaches and new friends about the goings-on in the area. Don’t be shy. Your role is to provide a route for your child and family. Pick up local publications and do research to get your child hooked-up with the community as soon as possible.
- Don’t ignore the old: Encourage your child to keep up with old friends. Help him to organize an email database.
- Celebrate the new: Do something special as a family to celebrate the new beginnings in your new environment. And when you’re feeling up to it, invite families with kids to a no-fuss party with store-bought finger foods and paper plates. It’s an important first step toward making your new house a home.