Care and Feeding

Ready for Transport

My husband and I want to take an opportunity to move somewhere far away, but our son has trouble dealing with change. What should we do?

Distraught boy curled in a ball with woman holding a suitcase in the foreground.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Peter Dazeley/Getty Images and Dougal Waters/DigitalVision/Getty Images.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband works in a field with opportunities for travel and temporary relocation (yearlong fellowships, for example), which is something we’ve been waiting to take advantage of for quite some time. Now that he’s reaching the point in his career where this might be a real possibility in the next year or two, we are presented with a conundrum.

Our son “Ben” is very sensitive and shy and does not transition well. He has already had to move and switch schools in his first two years, and it has been really challenging. He takes a long time to warm up to new situations and make new friends, and he has been anxious and sad during these transitions to new places and classrooms. It feels cruel to move him again so soon and possibly to somewhere far away. But on the other hand, how can we pass up such an amazing opportunity? Won’t he benefit from being exposed to travel and other cultures? We cannot figure out the right decision for our family and son in this situation. What should we do?

—Conflicted Parents With Wanderlust

Dear Wanderlust,

How can you pass up such an amazing opportunity? The same way a pregnant person has to pass up a bottomless champagne brunch with unlimited sushi, lunchmeat, and soft cheeses, or a free trip to an extreme rollercoaster park: because you have to. Not forever, necessarily, but for now.

Your child has a harder time with transition than other kids and has already had to deal with moving at a really early stage in his academic career. It would be cruel to then, say, less than two years later, tell him, “Not only are we taking you away from the comfort of the school, community, and friends you’ve grown comfortable with, but we’re also going to take you to a land far away where the culture is different.”

This is one of the many garbage parts of being a parent: We can’t simply do what’s best for us and expect our children to adjust, and sometimes we literally cannot do what would be best for us because we have to prioritize other needs instead. It can be absolutely devastating, but the impact on your son may be even more so if you choose to follow you and your husband’s “wanderlust” instead of tending to his need for consistency.

There are certain circumstances that would require disrupting your kid’s life and moving far away that are unavoidable or worth it (e.g., tending to a sick family member, a mandatory job relocation, or a new role that offers a salary high enough to end financial anxiety in your home). But simply wanting to explore new cultures just isn’t the best reason, if you know that your child struggles with new environments and big lifestyle changes.

That doesn’t mean that relocation is off the table, but you’ll need to spend some time working to address your kid’s issues with transition and preparing him for such a drastic move. Start with a family therapist who can help you tackle what may be causing him stress during his previous school changes and identify ways to get him to a place where he’d (hopefully) be ready for such an undertaking. If you know where you may end up, start exploring the local culture from where you are now as a family, via books, movies, online language classes, food, etc.

Most importantly, ask your son how he’d feel about such a move. Explain to him why you’d like to do it, but do not put any pressure on him to agree to the relocation or make him otherwise feel like his parents would be mad or disappointed if he says no. Make your decision as a family, and hopefully you’ll land on a solution that works for everyone. Cheers!