Moving home can be an exciting chapter of your life, one that comes with new job opportunities, new chances, and new friends. However, the transition may not be as smooth for your child. If the family moves frequently, children can experience feelings of unhappiness, dissatisfaction, and social isolation, which can carry on into adulthood.
When adults move house, they’re more likely to perceive this as a positive change – or, at least, cope better with the transition. But just because the entire family is on board with relocation, that doesn’t mean children are too. Saying goodbye to the old home can be much more difficult for a child, especially under the age of five, and moving home repeatedly can have a long-term impact on their mental health.
According to a study that tracked children in Northern Ireland between 2001 and 2011, children are five times more likely to experience mental health problems after three moves. Another study, conducted in the United States, came to a similar conclusion. Without taking into account other factors, children who relocated frequently:
The study also took into account the participants’ personality types and found that frequent moves were more challenging for introverted children. If extroverted children found it easier to make friends and adapt quickly, introverts needed more time to form new relationships.
According to researchers, certain factors that caused frequent moves in the first place could also emphasise the long-term impact on mental health:
So, is moving always bad for children?
Not necessarily. Moving once or twice during childhood shouldn’t be a cause of concern, and some children can actually thrive off change if they see it as an opportunity to make new friends and see exciting new places.
Healthy child development is based on stability and security, and housing is an important part of this. Home and family dynamics are at the heart of a child’s universe, so when the family moves frequently, their sense of security is thrown off track. If they don’t spend too long in one place, they’ll find it hard to connect with those around them and perceive moving as a threat.
That being said, living in the same home throughout their entire childhood isn’t always possible. If you have no choice but to move, it’s important to acknowledge the emotional challenges that your child may be facing and support them through the process.
Moving can be an emotional shock for a child, and they might not want to call the new place “home” as soon as they cross the threshold. Children can be angry, sad, and isolate themselves after the move, so to avoid that, you should start preparing them emotionally a few weeks before the move. Show them photos of the place, take them to visit the area, and explore fun places together, such as playgrounds, local landmarks, and amusement parks. You can also show them around the new school, and discuss family activities together. Wherever possible, let them get involved. Take your child new-home shopping with you, let them choose the colour of the walls or the decorations in their room. This way, they have more time to get used to the idea and will feel more like they’re in control, not that they’re dragged to a new place without having any say in it.
Even when you’re happy to leave your old home, remember that your child may have different feelings about it. For them, that’s where their best friends live and where they made most of their memories. Don’t expect children to gloss over these memories. Instead, cherish your old home and find ways to take a part of it with you. For example, you can make a photo album, or take an object from the old home. After you move, you shouldn’t expect your child to immediately move on. Instead, help them stay in touch with their old friends via Skype or social media, and schedule visits when possible.
If you have an extroverted child, they may be able to make new friends almost immediately, but if they’re quieter and more reserved, they’ll need a bit of help. Frequent moves can make it harder for introverted children to make new connections, but parents can help them overcome that initial shyness by exploring new things to do. Introduce your child to the neighbour’s children, encourage them to join a school club, or plan a welcome party. You should also stay in touch with your child’s teacher to monitor their school performance and address problems like learning difficulties and behavioural changes as soon as they appear.
Moving can be a major event in a child’s life, one that can be followed by feelings of sadness, anger, fear, and isolation. When you announce the move to your child, you should be ready to deal with these difficult emotions. Your child might cry, throw a tantrum, and even experience a form of grief and, as a parent, you should validate these emotions and reassure them that you’re in this together. If the child feels alone during the change and doesn’t have anyone to talk to, they’ll be more likely to isolate themselves.
In time, your child should think less about their old home and become more involved in activities with their new friends, but this varies from case to case. Each child processes the move differently, depending on their personality and family dynamics. Some get used to the new home in a couple of weeks. Others may need up to one year to feel truly at home, so be patient and help your child sort through their emotions. If your child doesn’t seem to be adjusting to the move and you’re concerned that their mental health is affected, a therapist can help them cope with stress, navigate their emotions, and get accustomed to their new home.