The Emotional Impact Of Frequent Moves During Childhood

unhappy girl arms folded moving with parents

By the time I was 12 years old, I had moved 10 times — more if you count the separate moves my parents made after they split up. My parents were hippies (or beatniks, if you ask my mother), always up for an adventure, and always hoping that a change of place would fix their problems and make them happy.

In certain ways, I see the moves we made when I was a kid as part of a wild, interesting, beautiful ride. But mostly, I hated moving, and I think of the moves my family made as symptomatic of their impulsive, unstable behavior — and at least one of the triggers of my lifelong anxiety and panic disorder.

Melissa Moreno, LCSW-R, a Talkspace therapist, agrees that frequent childhood moves can contribute to anxiety for some children. “Frequent moves can bring up some uncomfortable feelings such as anxiety and impact one’s ability and desire to build and maintain relationships,” she told me. “Some individuals link frequent moves to lower life satisfaction and poorer psychological well-being.”

A 2010 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology came to similar conclusions. The study looked specifically at the long-term effects repeated moves had once children reached adulthood. The researchers found that the more frequently a child moved, the more likely they were to report feelings of unhappiness and dissatisfaction, as well as fewer quality social relationships overall — and this was even after controlling for factors such as age, gender, and education level.

Of course, this is not an across-the-board phenomenon, and some children thrive despite frequent childhood moves. One of the most interesting aspects of the 2010 study was the researchers’ finding that it was actually the more introverted children who fared worst during frequent moves, and the more extroverted children that flourished.

“Moving a lot makes it difficult for people to maintain long-term close relationships,” said the study’s lead author, Shigehiro Oishi, PhD. “This might not be a serious problem for outgoing people who can make friends quickly and easily. Less outgoing people have a harder time making new friends.”

I have always thought that my introverted, sensitive personality was one of the reasons I had trouble with moving. This was certainly the case as I entered the school-age years and began to form meaningful friendship. As someone who was generally shy, it took me a while to make friends. And then — to have them yanked away from me when we moved — was painful indeed.

Now, as a mother of two sons, I have taken perhaps the polar opposite approach to moving than my own parents did. We have only moved once since my oldest was born ten years ago, and that was only a few miles away to a bigger home, which didn’t interrupt his schooling or his life. However, we may need to move again in a few years, and I have thought long and hard about how to make that transition easiest for each of my children — especially my oldest, who has many of the same sensitivities that I did growing up.

Melissa Moreno was able to offer some wonderful tips for how to make the stress of moving more manageable for children — and I will certainly be putting them to good use when my family moves again.

Access Individual Needs

Above all, Moreno encourages all parents to access their individual child’s needs, and to be sensitive to them as the family makes the transition. “Each child and family has different needs and desires and not all transitions are the same so I encourage you to be patient with yourself and your child during this time,” she told me.

Emotional Prep

Besides that, she encourages families to do some emotional preparation for the move. Visit the new area you’ll be moving to. Tour the school as well as the neighborhood. Research exciting new things your family might like to do in the neighborhood, including local landmarks, museums, and amusement parks.

Celebrate Where You’ve Been

Then, before the move, make sure to commemorate the place you are moving from in some way. For example, you can make a photo or memory book to take along with you. Additionally, have a plan in place so that you will be able to stay in touch with friends. Moreno suggests making plans to Skype with your friends on a monthly basis, or plan to stay in touch via email, letters, or social media.

Once you’ve settled into the new place, getting involved with community activities can help some children acclimate, says Moreno, and staying in close touch with their new teachers as they transition into the new school environment can be very helpful.

Moreno also suggests you point out the valuable aspects of moving whenever possible. “It may be necessary for a parent to point out to their child that there was a lot of value and life lessons in the move such as meeting a new friend that taught them something.”

However, it is also important to acknowledge any difficult feelings your child may be having. “Talk about the feelings that this time period is bringing up and ask for help when it is needed,” Moreno says. “Transitions can be difficult and understanding and talking about these feelings can help your child understand their thoughts and feelings.”

Of course, if your child needs extra help sorting through these feelings, reaching out to a school counselor or therapist might become necessary, and can really help a sensitive child move gently through the transition.

Although I don’t fault my parents entirely, I do wish that I had received a little more hand-holding, and perhaps some psychological help during those frequent moves I experienced in childhood. The good news is that I did eventually get the help I needed, and I’ve had some incredible therapists who have helped me work through much of my childhood instability.

I see now that although I wouldn’t wish my frequent childhood moves on anyone else, there was a kind of resilience that I build up in response to the adversity I experienced — and that resilience is something I am proud of, and which shapes me in powerful, positive ways to this day.

Published by

Wendy Wisner

Contributor