Too Many Transitions Can Traumatize Our Kids

I know from experience what happens when children face moving, divorce, or other stressful life change—and how we can help them.
Too Many Transitions Can Traumatize Our Kids

When I was 13 years old and living in the suburbs of Philadelphia, a friend’s mom was driving me home from school one evening. She asked, “Jess, tell me how to get to your house?” It was a simple enough question that most 13-year-olds can answer easily. But I was lost. I didn’t know a single thing about the city I was living in at the time—not a landmark, not a street name. I gambled and pointed, “Go that way.” Somehow I made it back to our rental home that night.

Now as an adult, I see with more clarity the debilitating fear that I felt in that moment. I was the poster child for generalized anxiety disorder. By the time I was 14, I had moved 12 times around the world. My father, Rick Marshall, was the director of North American crusades for Billy Graham, and he and his team arranged every logistical aspect of Graham’s evangelical meetings. That meant my family and I moved cities (and sometimes countries) every year. We spent one year in a city, at the end of which Billy Graham would come and preach the gospel to thousands.

When that week ended, so did my time in that city. The packing boxes got loaded up on the moving truck, I said quick, tearful goodbyes to brand-new friendships, and we were off again—off to a new city, a new neighborhood, and a new school. Of the four children in my family, I struggled most with this transitory lifestyle, and my struggle manifested as terrible anxiety.

Most kids don’t move as often as I did, but nonetheless, any move at all can trigger anxiety in kids. The psychological fallout is well documented. In 2010, The New York Times synthesized studies by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and reported that “moves in childhood may do long-term harm. Children who move often tend to perform worse in school and have more behavioral problems than those with a firmly rooted picket fence.” In addition, doctors of clinical psychology report that childhood moves are one of the top reasons children experience abnormal amounts of anxiety.

Other major life traumas—like divorce or death in the family—can also cause serious anxiety disorders in kids. According to experts associated with the Anxiety-Free Child Program, “divorce has a field day on the psychology of a child.” (A quick Google search on children and divorce yields over 1,000 hits labeled “divorce and childhood anxiety.”) Foster-care children, too, often experience a range of anxiety disorders due the intense trauma of environmental transitions.

Kids who experience divorce, foster care, or geographical relocation are all struggling with the same nuclear question: Where is home? Growing up, the root of my own anxiety stemmed from this question. Because I moved so often, I didn’t really have one. Rippling outward from that mentally explosive question were others: If I get lost, how will I find my way in a city I don’t know? What if my family leaves me? How will I find them if we don’t have a permanent home? I spent most of my childhood wrecked by these “what if” fears, because my childhood was so unstable. I also craved normalcy and routine.

Now as a married adult with kids, I’ve lived in Austin, Texas, for 13 years. Both my children were born in this city. I marvel that, unlike me as a child, they know street names. They know their friends’ neighborhoods. They point out landmarks that make up “home.” I don’t want to move from Austin, but someday we might have to. I don’t want my kids to experience the pain of major life transitions, but I’m fairly certain they will eventually, simply because it’s part of life. When that time comes, I’ll watch their behavior for signs of anxiety that are common to any major life transition:

The anxious child isn’t sleeping. And she’s waking you up to tell you about it. She’s holding her belly and not eating. She’s quiet for weeks or she’s exploding in tears every day. Her teachers are calling. She can’t seem to concentrate. She’s listless and distracted. She’s removed and then clingy, and she’s texting you from school: “Who’s picking me up today? Can you come get me? How will I get home? I feel scared.”

As parents, it’s impossible for us devote every hour to helping our kids cope. Nonetheless, there are practical and spiritual ways to help ease a child out of her severe, anxious responses. Here are a few tips from personal experience.

Prepare your kids.

We do a strange thing as parents that we wouldn’t have wanted done to us as children: We keep things a secret until the very last minute. At the heart of this tendency is a good desire to shield our kids from more pain than necessary, but kids’ anxieties go up when they sense something major is going on and don’t have the words for it. As a parent, give your kid words for the transitions up ahead. Inform her early about moves or parental separation. She will have questions, and you want her to explore those questions early, not in a panicked state as the moving truck is pulling up to the house or as Dad is filling a suitcase and moving out. Give her the gift of low-stress, unencumbered time to talk about how she’ll adjust.

Take time to say goodbye.

If your family has to move, don’t underestimate the value of saying goodbye to your former home. We parents get into efficiency mode when packing up a house, but it’s important to take a break from the frenzy and let your child say goodbye to anyone or anything she’ll miss when she leaves: neighbors, bedroom, pets, backyard, parks, and schools. Provide ample opportunity for necessary goodbye hugs and tears. Your child needs closure just as much (if not more) than you, and you can avoid a host of anxious regrets if you allow time for closure.

Protect your kids’ routines.

During times of hard transition, try and keep certain routines the same. We all know our kids thrive on routine—especially bedtime and morning routines. Even if everything else is in upheaval and your child is sleeping at Mom’s house one night and then Dad’s the next, try to keep the bedtime routine consistent. It will go a long way toward easing your child’s anxiety.

Pray over your children.

Lastly, say a prayer over your anxious child. She probably isn’t sleeping, so go to her. You might start with this prayer: “God of peace, this child needs rest. Her body is tense and her mind is wired. Nothing in this space feels like home. Good shepherd, loosen the knots of anxiety. Infuse her with hope of a grand design for good in her life. Show her that a new season is coming, and that you make all things new.”

As a child wrecked by the anxiety that stems from moving, I mistakenly believed for a long time that home meant staying put and never leaving a place. But that isn’t the full story. Home is both a person and a place—the One who calls us and the eternal place he is preparing for us. There will always be major life transitions. As parents, we steer our children through anxiety because it’s our calling to guide them home, toward the eternal God of love.

Jess Archer is a former English teacher and now freelance writer. She lives in Austin, Texas, with her singer-songwriter husband, B. Sterling Archer, and their two kids. Jess’s first book, Finding Home with the Beatles, Bob Dylan and Billy Graham, is a memoir about growing up inside The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and her longing for a sense of home. Find her poetry and musings here: writerjessarcher.com

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