Moving House With Toddler – Seven Steps to Finding the Calm Amidst Chaos and Change
We’ve had a huge few weeks here at the Turner household. Firstly, launching the new site with such an overwhelming response from all of you has been so exciting but right in the middle of launching we decided it was time to move house! I’m a pretty organised person at the best of times but moving house has been enough to send me into hibernation for the next 12 months. It’s also been a huge transition for Sophia, moving from familiarity, from friends and a home she’s lived in her entire life and also being in a brand new day care centre 2 days a week.
I’m no rookie when it comes to moving house, in fact I think I’ve moved house at least 15 times but the one thing I haven’t done before is move house with a small child. A lot people will tell you children are adaptable and not to worry, they’ll fit in easily but that’s not entirely true, every child has a different temperament and will most likely have a hard time adapting to a new environment in some way. We often don’t recognise this because babies, toddlers and small children can’t articulate it, so instead we look for the tell tail signs, which include anything from difficultly settling to sleep or staying asleep, to behavioural challenges and even physical illness. These are all ways that our babies, toddlers and children will be processing a big change.
During this move, Sophia has struggled with all three. Her immune system has taken a hit, with 2 viruses’, a rash and conjunctivitis! Her behaviour has changed, she’s more emotional, demanding and clingy, particularly with me and although she sleeps easily through the night because of our awesome sleep routine she’s had a lot of trouble settling and continuously wants me there to lie with her while she falls asleep, which I’m happy to do throughout this transition.
I want to share with you the things I’ve done to help make this transition a little smoother for her. These are things that I recommend you do with your baby, toddler or child when making any big transition, whether its moving house, starting in new care or school, or welcoming a new sibling into the home.
1) TALK ABOUT IT – In the weeks leading up to the move, we talked a lot about the new house and leaving our much loved old house behind. I showed Sophia the boxes as I packed them and I gave her a box to decorate (with crayons) and to pack her own belongings. This was just to help her connect with the process of packing and moving because you never know how our children are going to interpret such a big transition. Interestingly as we were packing up her room, Sophia revealed that she thought we were leaving her belongings behind and once she realised we were taking everything with us, a weight seemed to lift for her.
We read some great books on moving house, including A House for Hermit Crab By Eric Carle and Moving Molly By Shirley Hughes. We also took the time to talk about all the things we loved in our old house and when it was finally time to leave, we slowly went through and said a thorough goodbye to each room, thanking the house for taking care of us and keeping us safe and cosy.
2) Create a familiar space – When we arrived at the new house, we walked through and said hello to each room and thanked the house for being our new home, taking care of us and keeping us safe and cosy, Sophia loved exploring every inch of the house. Once that was taken care of, I then made it a priority to set up Sophia’s room with all her familiar and much loved things. I had packed all of her bedding, and her favourite books and toys separately so they could easily be accessed. I also left her sheets and pillowcase unwashed, so they still had a familiar smell on them (I washed them one week earlier!)
3) Welcome all her feelings big and small – Sophia has expressed the stress of the move through being impatient, more demanding and more angry than usual. If she doesn’t get something she feel she needs (mostly my undivided attention) she throws herself onto the floor and screams, then stares at me with what she calls her “Grrrr face” and tells me she’s really very angry. I’m no stranger to a strong willed, emotional child, she has always had big BIG feelings but throughout the move, I’ve been so tired its been hard to be fully present with her and support her through these feelings. One of my biggest mentors (from afar) and parenting inspirations is Janet Lansbury, from Elevating Child Care. I have often been drawn to her gentle guidance and expertise to navigate these BIG feelings and although I don’t adhere strictly to a RIE approach, you will often find me mentioning Janet’s amazing work. I have learnt from Janet that I need to be open to these big feelings because if I can’t be there for Sophia and accept her exactly as she is, who will? And if I cant hold the space for these big feelings, how will she ever learn to navigate them herself?
Janet has helped me understand that Sophia’s limit testing behaviour is often simply a cry for help, “Mama I need you to help me feel safe again by feeding me or helping me sleep or not allowing me to have free reign over our household and my entire family!!” These are all signs that she’s feeling too powerful, which is destabilising for her and she needs me to step, connect with her and be her confident loving mama.
So I try to always show Sophia that I accept her emotions and big feelings by not shaming, ignoring or demonising tantrums and strong displays of anger and rage, instead I try to be as calm as possible and empathetically connect with her. I try to gently acknowledge her feelings from a place of understanding and compassion (even when I feel like exploding). Most importantly I don’t punish her and I try not to ignore the behaviour. Most punishments are shaming and send a message that “feelings are wrong” and that “I am wrong”. To a lot of people, ignoring or overlooking the behaviour might feel like a gentle way to resolve the problem but instead this sends a covert message that there’s something wrong with feeling these emotions. So I try to reflect her feelings and her wishes (no matter how irrational they seem) back to her and then I put my own boundary in place. If she doesn’t like my boundary, that’s perfectly ok, I’m still completely open to hearing how she feels about it AND my boundary still stands. You might notice I say, “I try….” a lot, that’s because I want you to know, that I don’t get it ‘right’ every time and I’m certainly not perfect. Sometimes, I’m exhausted and I lose my temper just like any other parent but I try hard because I see an enormous difference with my daughter when I attune to her emotions. Maria Golding from Intuitive Motherhood says, “you don’t need to get it right all the time to be a good enough mother. In fact attachment research suggests 30% is all you need”, that’s good enough for me!!
4) Establish loving, firm boundaries and limits – For small children respectful boundaries equate to security. I’ve got to admit, initially because I was so exhausted from the move I was relying on permissive parenting and super flexible boundaries a lot more than I ordinarily would but gentle loving parenting and permissive parenting are 2 very different things and it can be a real balancing act. I’ve notice when I’m too permissive, Sophia will test my boundaries relentlessly and the only way to end the power struggle is by bringing in respectful yet firm limits.
One of the biggest boundaries I’ve put in place is Sophia’s sleep routine. Our sleep routine ebbs and flows. When Sophia was a baby I was quite rigid as I initially established her baby sleep routine but these days she sleeps so well from my Gentle Sleep Guidance, that I’m able to relax a bit because we’ve found the sleep routine that works best for her (see my eBooks for more info or book in for a 1:1 consultation) However, throughout this transition I’ve had to be a bit more rigid with her sleep routine to make sure she gets plenty of rest, to help her adjust to the move and to bring some normalcy into her life.
Sophia is usually happy settling herself and drifting off to sleep because we’ve used my Gentle Sleep Fade Settling Technique since she was a small baby but during the move she’s insisted that I stay with her until she falls asleep. I see this as very clearly asking for my help, while she feels a bit insecure and unsettled, so I’ve had no problem with it and I see it as my job to help ease her back into self settling gradually and gently.
Ash and I have alternated staying in with her while she falls asleep, we try not to make a big deal out of it, so that firstly, she just knows we’re always going to be there for her when she needs us and secondly, so we don’t create an even bigger problem by putting too much emphasis on this newfound insecurity (which could potentially make it an even bigger issue to her). When we first moved, we started by sitting beside her bed and stroking her hair to help her settle and gradually over a few days we began to just hold her hand and then eventually, we didn’t touch her but rather just sat next to the bed without talking (she usually falls asleep within about 10 minutes). As she feels more secure, I’ll start to sit near the door (instead of beside her bed) until she falls asleep and then I’ll start to sit outside her bedroom door and read a book (to myself) until she falls asleep. This is a modified version of one of my nurture-based settling techniques that I’ve had enormous success with, you can find it in more detail for babies here or toddlers and older children here.
I’ve also been really consistent with her pre-bedtime ritual of brushing teeth, reading a story, recounting the day’s events and doing a simple mediation with her. I’ve made sure her pre-bedtime ritual starts no later than 6.20pm so that she’s in bed before 7pm every night. This will probably relax as she settles into her new surroundings but right now it helps to know she’s consistently getting all the sleep she needs.
It’s not always easy to put sleep boundaries in place, particularly with toddlers and older children but I firmly believe it’s our job as parents to give our children structure and limits to help them feel safe and secure. Janet Lansbury believes that without structure and boundaries our kids feel too powerful and like they have too much control which can make them feel destabilised. She believes they need parents who are confident, empathic leaders to respectfully set limits, which I believe is not only our job but an act of parental love.
5) Connect – I find when children ‘act out’ or test our limits they’re often asking for more consistent limits (as I talked about above) and connection, they truly need us to step in and attune to them with empathy and understanding. Throughout this transition I’ve taken the time to sit and connect with Sophia during the day and use my “Magic Oils” (usually Lavender, chamomile and rose from Young Living) to give her a little hand and arm massage. She literally melts into her seat when we do this and loves to have that time with me, without any distractions. The combination of the oils and the touch have a lasting affect that I usually see for hours later. I also like to do a simple mediation process with Sophia to help her move back into her body and gently into her “upstairs brain” as Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson call it, in No-Drama Discipline (One of my favourite parenting books). We have been doing this meditation breathing practise before bed most nights, which she seems to love and I often see her showing her toys how to meditate during her free play.
Founder of RIE, Magda Gerber talks about connecting with our children using the term “Wants Something Quality Time”, It’s funny that for such a simple concept, it actually took me a long time to get my head around it. “Wants Something Quality Time” means that we take those everyday chores of feeding, changing, dressing and bathing our children and we turn them into an opportunity for significant connection and quality time. Most of the time we just want to rush through these chores and get to the ‘good’ part of the day but what many of us do is overlook the significant opportunity to connect with and attune to our child. Magda’s believes that instead of rushing through these chores, we slow down during these moments and really connect with our child by telling our baby what we are doing or talking to our toddler or older child about what we would like to help them with (i.e. Dressing for bed, brushing their hair or teeth).
Often we’ll face resistance from our child and need to slow down even further, which is all part of “Wants Something Quality Time”. So many of my mamas tell me they feel guilty for not having time to sit with their child throughout the day and have “quality time” and a lot of mums tell me they get bored ‘trying’ to have quality time with their child but with “Wants Something Quality Time” you can relax knowing you’ve had plenty of quality time. If this sounds too simple to be true, I urge you not to overlook it the way I initially did, it’s one of the most valuable parenting tools I’ve ever come across, it’s a simple mindfulness exercise and will take your connection with your child to a whole new level.
6) Take care of yourself mama – I firmly believe our kids ‘pick-up’ on our emotions and our stress, they are so sensitive to their environment and especially their family and caregivers. This move has been exhausting for all of us and there have been times where I’ve wanted to curl up into a little ball, cry and sleep for a few days. Not only has Sophia had to process her own feelings around this transition but I’m sure she’s been unconsciously aware of my stress and to some extent taking that on herself. Steve Biddulph, author of Raising Girls (and several other equally amazing books that you can find here) says, “Your children cannot be more relaxed than you. That’s because, at least in the early years, their level of stress rises and falls on the levels of their mum’s and dad’s and anyone else near by. They are like a cork bobbing about on the waves of their mum and dad’s stress levels”. So my solution has been to take extra special care of myself, including prioritising healthy, home cooked meals, relatively early nights, nightly meditation (I usually fall asleep half way through!) and time to enjoy our new surroundings by taking an (almost) daily walk on the beach. Our needs are just as important as our children’s needs and sometimes it’s hard to take care of ourselves but a little bit of self nurturing goes a long way and our children will thank us for it!
7) Child-Led, self directed Nature Play – not only has this been a great way for us to explore and get to know our new surroundings but it has also been helpful to ‘ground’ ourselves in our new home, getting plenty of sunshine and ‘Earthing’ with bare feet. Child-led nature play is one of the most valuable gifts you could offer your child. Multiple studies show that regular outdoor play significantly reduces stress in kids and adults. It gives Sophia plenty of time in nature but also allows her to be the boss of her own play. I don’t guide her or try to influence her play in any way, I simply observe her and this gives her a sense of the trust I have in her. It also helps to enhance her intrinsic motivation rather than cultivating an environment where she relies on me or her Dad to motivate her and show her how to play. Our children are experts at play, when we try to coach or direct them we are undermining their expertise, their imagination and their inner genius!
The benefits of child-led play are endless, it encourages kid’s innate creativity, develops their imagination, encourages problem solving and allows them to take age appropriate risks (I always step in if I feel the situation looks dangerous). In this study, 78% of educators agree “children who spend regular time in unstructured outdoor play are better able to concentrate and perform better in the classroom”
Because of the extended time that Sophia spends in self directed play, I’ve noticed her attention span is longer and she’s able to play sometimes for hours without needing me to help or direct her. It’s fascinating to watch her solve big and little problems with the most creative solutions, without looking for my help or approval. We embrace boredom in our house as an opportunity for exploration, adventure and experimentation. While she plays I either potter around doing chores or I sit with her and observe, I don’t interrupt unless I perceive danger or she invites me to and even then I intervene minimally.
In the words of Janet Lansbury “Self-directed play: Develops physical and cognitive skills, fosters creativity, imagination, psychological health, a strong sense of self, and gives parents time off!”
Combining all of these strategies has helped Sophia integrate and process this transition much more easily that when I was just flying by the seat of my pants. She is more settled and seems to be much more confident in our leadership as her parents. She still inevitably has moments of frustration, anger and resistance, which she has every right to but through acknowledging her emotions, holding the space for her to explore and experiment and setting clear and consistent limits she seems to be much more grounded and at peace with this enormous change.
Sleep Well Mama,
My parenting philosophy is inspired by many amazing experts including RIE expert, Janet Lansbury, her blog Elevating Childcare and her books which are an extension of the work of RIE founder Magda Gerber. My work is also inspired by Tina Payne Bryson and Dan Siegel and in particular their book, No-Drama Discipline
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