Can Moving Often Affect a Child's Development?

A new home means change, which can be hard on kids

As your children eagerly pack up toys and prepare their stuffed animals for a new location for tea parties and wrestling matches, the excitement of moving is likely building. Moving affects everyone in the family in both positive and negative ways; however, parents often question whether moving frequently can affect a child’s development.

“Just as moving is stressful for adults, it’s also stressful for children, so it shouldn’t be a big surprise that children experience a variety of emotions related to moving,” says Christina Steinorth, the author of “Cue Cards for Life: Gentle Reminders for Better Relationships” and a licensed psychotherapist in Santa Barbara, Calif., with a master's degree in marriage and family therapy. Recognizing the effects that moving has on your child’s development can help prepare the entire family for the adjustments and challenges that may result.

Emotional Consequences

When a family moves often, a child’s emotional development is put at risk, according to Steinorth. “Moving brings feelings of sadness because of all the losses involved -- the loss of school, the loss of friends, the loss of trusted teachers, babysitters and the loss of certain routines.”

Children may also feel anxious and sometimes even angry about a move. This may have a direct impact on a child’s emotional development. Says Steinorth, “When a move occurs at an early childhood stage, children tend to go back to a more dependent relationship with their parents, so a move basically disrupts the developmental stage where children go from trusting only their parents to learning to trust others.”

As a result, your child may develop insecure attachments with others and later have issues with trust, Steinorth cautions. To help with the transition, she recommends that parents encourage their children to talk about their feelings. “Don’t dismiss your child’s emotions with comments such as ‘You’ll be fine,’ ‘Everyone moves’ or ‘You’ll adjust.’ Really hear what they are telling you and offer an empathetic ear,” she suggests.

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Academic Challenges

A child’s academic development can also be impacted by a move because teacher and curriculum expectations vary from school to school. “While a child may have excelled in one school, he may find that he is actually behind academically in another,” says Steinorth. “This is especially a high probability if moves are frequent.” In some cases, a child may be held back a grade when moving often, which could negatively impact his self-esteem. When a child is held back, Steinorth points out, peer relationships are once again lost.

On the other hand, a child may find that he is ahead of the curriculum at a new school, resulting in boredom during classes.

If you find that school is a problem for your child after a move, Steinorth recommends scheduling a parent-teacher conference to find out how you, as a parent, can work with the school to bring your child to the level he needs to be, so he isn’t bored or left behind. A visit to the new school prior to the move may also help calm your child’s anxieties.

Self-Esteem and Self-Worth

Boost your child’s sense of self-worth by getting the entire family involved in community activities. Join and participate in volunteer projects, local organizations or family church activities. “This way you can role-model to your children firsthand that you are jumping right into what your new community has to offer and trying to make new friends,” Steinorth says.

A child’s sense of security, continuity and confidence -- all necessary ingredients for building solid self-esteem -- is often affected by frequent moves, says Dr. Fran Walfish, a Beverly Hills psychotherapist and author of “The Self-Aware Parent.” During this time, encourage your child to directly express all powerful feelings to you, including sadness, excitement, fear and anger. Encourage friendships with children who will treat your son or daughter kindly.

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Separation Anxiety

Any transition or change in a child’s life can cause separation anxiety, says Walfish. “As much as there may be a positive effect of excitement for the child, there is usually anxiety and worry attached to saying goodbye to the familiar and hello to the unknown.”

Common symptoms of separation anxiety include sleep disruption, changes in eating patterns, increased clinginess, and accelerated worries about being alone and isolated, says Walfish. She suggests parents make a book of “our old house and our new house” to help comfort and calm a child’s fears about moving often.

“Let him know the house changed but the people in our family always stay together,” she recommends. "Let your child draw pictures to include, and choose the special place where his book sits. This gives him a little bit of control over a situation in which he has none.”

As with any life change, Walfish recommends empathetic narration. “Talk things through out loud and tell your child you understand that change is hard for everyone -- kids and grown-ups,” she says.

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