Relocation Stress on Families

by Alan Brandis, Ph.D.

Relocation has a significant and different impact on every member of the family. Since Atlanta is the site of so many companies' corporate headquarters, there is a significant flow of middle- and upper-level managers and executives moving into and out of Atlanta. We have worked with numerous families who found, once they completed the physical relocation of their belongings, that they had never bothered to prepare themselves or their children emotionally for the move, with sometimes devastating consequences.

Across all of the relocating families we have worked with, there is no "typical" pattern of stresses on which a family can plan. The ages of the children, the life stage or the career path of the adults, and the closeness of the relationships being left behind, all affect the difficulty a family will have in adjusting to a move.

When a family is better prepared for the change, the impact of relocation can be managed comfortably and can even provide an opportunity for growth. Families who are able to discuss among themselves (before, during and after the move) both the positive and the negative aspects of the move, including their hopes and fears, gains and losses, anger and excitement, joy and sadness, will be better able to handle the ups and downs of a move which not everyone is looking forward to equally.

What often happens, though, is that the adults work on the "tasks" of the move, and overlook or ignore the feelings of everyone who will be involved, including their own feelings and reactions. We recommend a proactive approach which involves the entire family (as much as possible) at every level, and in every combination.

The adjustment process should begin immediately after the adults have made the decision to move. (Unless the children are of late high school age, they should not be asked to share the burden of deciding whether or not to make a move, accept the promotion, etc., because these decisions are the responsibility of the parents.)

The "Family Meeting" is a good place to start. Announce the decision to relocate as a matter of fact. Follow the announcement by acknowledging that this change will provide everyone in the family with both challenges and opportunities, losses and gains, goodbyes and hellos, endings as well as new beginnings. Next, allow for an "inventory" of everyone's initial reaction to the news. This may be presented as, "What is your first reaction, what do you see as a negative about the move, what do you see as a positive about the move?" Try to get all family members to name an initial negative and a positive point. Give everyone a chance to share. Don't forget to share your own reactions, and be honest!

Finally, let everyone know that relocation is a process that occurs over a period of time, and that the family will be having more frequent family meetings to "check in" with each other about the thoughts, feelings, and ideas that develop as the process unfolds. In committing to this process of coming together on a regular basis, you provide the "sense of community" within the family which can support all family members through the move and beyond.