To break the news to our two daughters that we were moving to Blacksburg, Virginia, I concocted a scavenger hunt around our house in Austin that finally led them to a wall map. Next to the state of Virginia, a Post-It note said, “We’re moving.” Ella, then ten years old, looked at us with glistening eyes. “Really?” she said.
Then she broke into a grin and flung her arms around us. “Thank you!”
So that was weird.
More typical, perhaps, is my friend’s daughter Grace, who spent her first couple months in Blacksburg prattling on about the places and people she missed in her old town of Ithaca, New York. “It’s not that I don’t like it here,” she reassured her mother. “But something just doesn’t feel right.”
Moving is part thrilling, part awful, always emotionally fraught. And as hard as it is for emotionally stable adults, it can be particularly trying for children. By age five, when kids are old enough to have their own social network and happy memories of life in a place, a move can feel like a forced march into enemy territory. All that is familiar, comfortable, and beloved is being left behind.
Most kids are resilient, moping for a few weeks or months, but eventually settling into new friendships and falling in love with their surroundings—in the same slow, careful way adults do.
But I’m not going to lie. If you’re moving with kids or teenagers this summer, you’re right to worry, at least a little. Geographic mobility has been shown to have serious adverse effects, particularly for teenagers.
One longitudinal study of data gathered in Amsterdam found that teenagers who moved a lot were more likely to suffer from stress, fatigue, irratibility, depression, sleep difficulties, and other psychosocial issues as adults. A University of Virginia study showed that introverts who moved a lot as children died earlier as adults. Other researchers have found that frequent or recent movers performed worse in school and were more likely to misbehave, abuse drugs, or engage in sexually promiscuous behavior.
Why so many problems? Psychologists suggest you blame the unmooring range of negative feelings and experiences that children deal with when they move: loss, grief, loneliness, fear of the unknown, lack of social support, frustration, stress, and helplessness. For some children, particularly those in familial situations already low on stability, the emotional demands of moving can set off a cascade of lasting psychological and emotional effects.
If you’re planning a move or anticipating a job transfer, you’re probably scared right now. Here’s the good news: Your move doesn’t have to completely mess up your kid for life. Simply being mindful of your child’s needs during this transition allows you to offer extra help. Here’s how.
- Give your kids some control. For teenagers, feeling like major life decisions are being made over their heads can trigger anxiety and a sense of helplessness (which can translate to rebellion). The antidote? Involve them in as many decisions as you can. Invite them along on your house hunting trip. Let them peruse the Realtor.com listings. At the very least they can choose their own bedroom.
- Help them acquire friends fast. The most frightening part of a move for kids (and frankly, adults) is losing their reliable and long-standing network of friends. To make them feel more comfortable in their new place, make socializing priority #1. Join a sports league, sign them up for summer camp, work the playdate circuit. It’ll take time, particularly for adolescents, so encourage them to maintain friendships in their old city for now. Knowing a BFF is a text away will help them feel less lonely and awkward.
- Reestablish stability. Quickly resuming old routines, including chores and Friday night pizza dates, will make kids feel more grounded. Attending a church like the one in your last town may help too.
- Ante up. One mom I know offered her daughter a new dog and her son a ride to and from middle school every day (so he could avoid the dreaded bus). Normally I don’t recommend bargaining with terrorists, but in this case the move was your choice, and your kids are being forced to go along with it. It’s not out of line to sweeten the pot.
- Love your new town. Your children will mourn what they miss about where they came from, but you can speed up the process of place attachment by highlighting new things to adore, from festivals and concerts to museums and zoos. The quicker you figure out what your town is good at, the easier it will be to fall in love with it. And that’ll make everyone, kids and adults alike, a lot happier where they live.
Shana L. Pribesh, “The Consequences of Residential and School Mobility for Adolescents,” PhD dissertation, The Ohio State University, 2005.
Doohee Lee, “Residential Mobility and Gateway Drug Use Among Hispanic Adolescents in the U.S.: Evidence from a National Survey,” The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse 33 (2007): 799–806.
Kuan-Chia Lin, J. W. R. Twisk, and Hui-Chuan Huang, “Longitudinal Impact of Frequent Geographic Relocation from Adolescence to Adulthood on Psychosocial Stress and Vital Exhaustion at Ages 32 and 42 Years: The Amsterdam Growth and Health Longitudinal Study,” Journal of Epidemiology 22, no. 5 (2012): 469–76.
David J. Dewit, “Frequent Childhood Geographic Relocation: Its Impact on Drug Use Initiation and the Development of Alcohol and Other Drug-Related Problems Among Adolescents and Young Adults,” Addictive Behaviors 23, no. 5 (1998): 623–34.
Shigehiro Oishi and Ulrich Schimmack, “Residential Mobility, Well-Being, and Mortality,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 98, no. 6 (2010): 980–94.