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  • Moving can be hard, yet family relationships are often strengthened in the experience, and those relationships diminish the upheaval and chaos of it all. Tweet This
  • Residential mobility is associated with many broad negative effects including decreased health and happiness, as well as negatively impacting future education and income. Tweet This
  • Time spent together as a family, strengthening and reinforcing these relationships prior to a move, can be exceptionally valuable.  Tweet This
Category: Family Life

Early in my sophomore year of high school, my sisters and I (first author) got home from school, went immediately to my parents’ room, sat on the bed, and cried. We were so overwhelmed by the new school, the new city, the new everything, and we just wanted to go “home.” Not to this new house, new street, and new neighbors but to our old house, our old friends, our old life—everything that felt comfortable, safe, and secure. As is often the case, however, even though it was painful, we had to move, and we needed to learn to build a new life for ourselves.

I, too (second author), remember well the disruption of multiple moves, coming on the average of every 2–3 years in our military family. Over time, you learned to be stoic—since there was no getting around it—and try to find silver linings: "I’m giving up friends and familiarity, but leaving troubles behind, too, and finding new friends and adventures, right?" Age 35 marked my last move. With a Ph.D. in hand, a tenure-track position at a major university, and four children in tow, I was determined to make this move stick. My wife and I moved into our first home, and there we’ve stayed, committed to giving our children stability, continuity, and “roots” I didn’t have. 

Over the last 27 years, I have often reflected on how those experiences during the developmental years of childhood and adolescence may have shaped and imprinted personality and relationship patterns in profound and almost inexorable ways. Now, after two years of a pandemic, I try to imagine the more difficult-to-navigate types of disruption and adaptation caused by COVID, where lockdowns or quarantine period created barriers to forming new social connections, leaving teens that had to move isolated and feeling very much alone. The experiences of these teens represent an exacerbation of the “sheltering in place,” which nearly the whole country experienced. 

In infancy and early childhood, the family is your world, and so your world moves with you. Once children are in school, however, and increasingly during the teen years, a milieu of peer relationships and social–developmental connections beyond the family loom large. COVID has brought to the forefront of our attention many secondary impacts for school-age children, adolescents, and young adults—including challenges of residential mobility. While permanent moves actually declined during the year of 2020, the pandemic spurred a significant increase in temporary moves—which can be especially disruptive, as the limbo of a temporary move increases isolation if persons neglect investing in new relationships. While it is hard to say what long-term effects the COVID pandemic may have had on temporary or permanent residential mobility or relocation, it is certain that the upheaval of relocation will remain pertinent as millions of Americans move each year and average upwards of 11 moves over the course of their lives.

Moving is generally a stressful experience across the board. As moving becomes more common—to include separation from extended kin networks—it is important to consider several questions. Who is most at risk for negative outcomes? How does moving impact these individuals? And what can we do to reduce negative effects?

Who’s At Risk?

One prominent theme in the literature about residential mobility is that negative effects are strongest for those who move during their adolescent years—that transitional space between the time when the family is “our whole world” and the time we have “our own world” beyond our family, with some autonomy over where we live and the ability to sustain our own social networks. Nevertheless, while the transitional space of adolescence creates unique risk for disruption from residential mobility, not all adolescents who move are affected to the same extent. 

The various general and social negative effects of moving impact some kids more than others. Most prominently, those who move multiple times, and especially several times in the same year, are especially at risk. The negative effects are also typically stronger for older adolescents. Other factors that may increase one’s risk of negative outcomes may include introversiongender (girls tend to experience greater negative effects than boys), neuroticism, and race and ethnicity (Latino and African American children tend to experience greater negative effects). Also, those who already struggle with social difficulties or behavior problems could experience more adverse effects from moving. 

What Are the Risks?

Residential mobility is associated with many broad negative effects including decreased health and happiness, as well as specific outcomes such as negatively impacting future education and income. The most prevalent of the negative effects of residential disruption is an increase in internalizing behaviors (depression, anxiety symptoms, psychiatric disorders), with some increase in externalizing behaviors (e.g., aggression, deviant behaviors, attempted suicide, and substance misuse) as well.

Social effects are reasonably anticipated. Adolescents who experience the upheaval of residential dislocation often experience decreased quality and quantity of friendships. Specifically, those who move a lot tend to have fewer friends, and they often experience less relational closeness with the friends that they do have compared to those who are able to stay in one place throughout adolescence. Additionally, residentially mobile adolescents are more likely to have friends who are less popular and/or more likely to engage in deviant behaviors like drinking, smoking, and skipping school. However, those who are more residentially mobile may also experience greater differentiation, identification with the personal self over the collective self, and a greater willingness to help out-group members in addition to those in the same group as them—a notable prosocial outcome. So, there are some potentially positive developmental attainments in addition to relationally disruptive experiences.

We Have to Move. So Now What?

The Chinese character for “crisis” includes connotations of both “endangerment” and a “crucial turning point, when something begins to change.” While residential dislocation is clearly a significant emotional, psychological, and relational stressor, resiliency and positivity can be fostered and produce developmental gains. Those who experience multiple residential disruptions become well acquainted with this dualistic reality. 

Several factors can help reduce negative outcomes, and two of the most important of those mediating factors are perception of the moving situation and family support. Perception, or the way in which a family sees and interprets a situation, can be one of the most predictive factors of family outcomes when the family is going through a stressful experience, and research found this to be true for moving as well. Parental attitudes about moving were found to be especially important, which makes sense, because parents often set the tone for the whole family. This means that one way to help adolescents experience fewer negative effects, and perhaps even some positive ones, is for parents to: (a) be aware of the unique vulnerability adolescents face during residential disruption and dislocation, (b) model positivity and resiliency, and (c) craft family-level plans—scaffolding—for navigating the change successfully, including (d) maintaining continuity of reassuring daily family patterns. Parents can enlist the family in choosing constructive attitudes and meaning-making around the moving experience. In this way, family support can be an incredibly important factor in mediating and ameliorating the negative effects of residential mobility. The strength of the parent-adolescent relationship is especially protective, and siblings also help. Consequently, time spent together as a family, strengthening and reinforcing these relationships prior to a move, can be exceptionally valuable. 

Altogether, a strong parent-adolescent bond with ensuing family and sibling support is the point of origin for various specific sequelae that help teens understand that they are not alone as they navigate the initial disruption, stress, isolation, and loneliness that seem to be boxed up inside the moving van, waiting to be opened upon arrival. Moving can be hard, yet family relationships are often strengthened in the experience, and those relationships diminish the upheaval and chaos of it all—especially if families are intentional in attitude and preparation, approach the situation supportively and resiliently, pull close, sustain stabilizing routines, and stay alert for indicators of risk.

Jane C. Christensen is a B.S. student in the School of Family Life, Brigham Young University. Mark H. Butler, Ph.D. Marriage and Family Therapy, is a Professor in the School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.