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Moving Is Tough for Kids

Moving is hard on kids who leave and those who stay.

Key points

  • Frequent moves disrupt kids' friendships and are most problematic for kids who are introverted, anxious, and/or inflexible.
  • Adults who moved frequently as kids have fewer high-quality relationships and tend to score lower on well-being and life satisfaction.
  • One reason kids are negatively affected by moves is that moves are often precipitated by problems affecting the family, like divorce or job loss.

The New York Times recently summarized new research on how kids are affected by moving.1 With this long, dragged-out recession, the disruptions caused by the Gulf Oil disaster, and the foreclosure crisis, hundreds of thousands of kids are going to be packing boxes and finding new homes. That won't make it any easier.

This is a touchy subject for me. I moved 10 times during the first 25 years of my marriage. My oldest son moved five times before college (a touchy, touchy subject), and my youngest has moved three. Most professors have virtually no control over where they work—there are a limited number of jobs in very specific topics and many more well-qualified Ph.D.s than academic positions. Required moves are one of the many stresses in the lives of academics and those in many other professions.

And then there's the effect on their kids.

The bad news. As the new study published in the Journal of Social and Personality Psychology documents, frequent moves are tough on kids and disrupt important friendships. These effects are most problematic for kids who are introverted and those whose personalities tend toward anxiety and inflexibility. Specifically, adults who moved frequently as kids have fewer high-quality relationships and tend to score lower on well-being and life satisfaction.

Fortunately, the results—like all findings in psychology—are more nuanced than that. One major reason that kids are negatively affected by moves is that moves are often precipitated by problems—like a divorce or job loss—that are tough on the family. Or the family moves because one parent's job requires it, but this means the other parent (usually mom) loses theirs. When parents are stressed and upset (and trust me, moving is always stressful), their parenting suffers and the kids always, always, always notice. Moves are also hardest on kids in the midst of other transitions like puberty and school changes. Middle school seems to be the toughest time to make a transition.

You can help. When parents support each other and work hard to make the move as easy for themselves and their kids as possible, negative effects are minimized. When moving is fairly normative, as for military families, and the receiving school has many kids who move or have peer networks that are relatively open so it is easier to enter into new social circles, negative effects are minimized. Like most processes that have negative effects on social relationships, meaning (e.g., we're making this move to keep the family together), mutual support ("I know this is hard, but we're working to make it as easy as possible"), and flexibility help both parents and kids in the adjustment.

The child left behind. Now that I think we have finally, finally, finally settled in and may yet live to remove all the moving stickers from our furniture, I am seeing this from the other side.

We have always been the ones who moved. I don't remember my kids ever being the ones left behind. It was usually the same with me as a kid. It used to make me both sad and angry when I'd hear people in my La Leche League support group warn each other, "Don't make friends with anyone from the college who isn't tenured; they'll just move away."

Now, being tenured, we are the ones who are staying. And my son's best friend just moved away.

Like most major transitions (childbirth, divorce), moving is a long process, not one that just drops from the sky. Actually, his friend's moving transition lasted several years, as his family was on the verge of moving at the end of each year and was only reprieved at the last minute. As the end of the contract approached each year, we anticipated the loss of his best friend for several months. Chronic stress differs from acute stress in that anxiety is high, but there is nothing much to do. You know a loss may be coming. You feel upset and anxious. But you don't know if it will happen or not. My son—at 9 and then 10 and then 11—would lose sleep and feel worried, but didn't really know what would happen. As a parent, you try to be supportive and put the best face on it, but not set children up for disappointment.

When the move finally seemed certain, I watched my son's attention in school hit the floor. Depression in childhood looks somewhat different from depression in adulthood. In addition to moping, crying, and feelings of sadness, children can also become inattentive, hyperactive, and act out—yelling, hitting, being defiant or stubborn. They're cranky. Fortunately, my son never hit those depths, but his sleep was spotty, his attention was poor, and he was just sad. This, of course, hit his friend as well, who was more seriously upset and, being more extroverted, more prone to acting out. In dyadic relationships (friendships) when both partners are stressed, relationship quality tends to suffer. You see this in romantic partners heading off to different colleges or about to be deployed overseas. You see it in kids, too. Relationship problems don't make the parting easier.

Plans for maintaining the relationship were positive for both kids. Technology has changed things a lot and can be used to sustain distant relationships. When I was a kid and my best friend moved, we wrote weekly letters but never made a phone call. It was 7 cents a minute and that was a lot of money. Now the kids use the unlimited phone minutes on the cellphone to call each other. They use the internet for free video chatting. Remember the Jetsons on TV with their video phones? That age is here and free on the computer. Just seeing each other's faces—and the messiness of our familiar family room and his messy new bedroom—is a comfort.

And video games, which are such a social center for many kids' lives, can be played online. Together. Simple games like checkers and chess or Battleship are free. For younger kids, who have trouble maintaining sustained emotional conversations, this is a real blessing because you can talk around and through a game and still communicate well. You can show a Lego model or a new soccer ball without having to describe it. You can play a blast on the trumpet. You can walk around the house with a laptop and show where you're living. Shared activities bond people together without the pressure of just talking. This can be particularly important for boys and for kids who are less verbal and more play-oriented. The kids are even planning to continue their Dungeon and Dragons game online, with three kids and the Dungeon Master here and the other joining via videoconference. I am sure the kids couldn't all sit and just talk for two hours. I feel confident that they can play a game together.

Both kids are kept busy. Camp, other friends, and family activities can help ease the gap left by the loss. And all people feel most depressed when they are left alone to brood. Kids, too. And although summer is wonderful, those long stretches of time can give kids a lot of time to feel alone and bored.

How will this work out? I don't know. But I'm sure both kids will learn from it. And I know—really, truly know—that they were both better off having had this friendship and having lost it through the move than they would have been if they had held off and avoided the relationship just because it was going to end.


Note: Kids who are economically distressed and those at the top end of the socioeconomic spectrum are more likely to move than those in the middle.

When we were kids and moved to a new town, my parents would immediately settle themselves in—find a new church, joining organizations, and taking on leadership roles. It doesn't take a long time to become part of an organization when you're the head of the Sunday School or you organize a school bake sale or you volunteer at the Red Cross.

I remember my father saying that one of the reasons that families moving through our community had such a hard time is that they just "perched." They came to town not knowing if they'd be there for a year or three or a lifetime. Because of this, they never really committed to staying. They never made friends or set down roots. Although tearing up roots can be really painful, he felt—and I agree—that it is still better than not allowing yourself ever to be part of a community.

© 2010 Nancy Darling. All Rights Reserved.



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