PARENTS

Moving House And How Children Can Be Affected

14/08/2014 16:58 | Updated 20 May 2015

Mother and daughter with moving boxes

I was lucky enough to live in the same home throughout my childhood. I say 'lucky' because I think the security and stability it gave me was valuable and I'd really like the same for my children.

Some of my friends, however, couldn't disagree more. "Our kids love moving home," insists one of them, who has moved six times in the last 12 years. "They love the excitement of a new adventure, of choosing a new bedroom and of starting again. I think it teaches them important lessons too, such as being able to cope well with change."

So which of us is right?

Well, the research suggests there can be a negative impact to multiple moves. Moving house is known to be one of the most stressful things that adults can do, and it can take its toll on kids both in the long and short term, according to these studies.

In particular, scientists found that children in families who moved repeatedly (especially to new areas of the country) were more likely to perform badly in school and have behavioural problems. Most worryingly of all, the disruption was also more likely to lead to them being less happy in later life, have fewer friends and even die younger. One study also found that moving a lot before the age of 18 increases the likelihood of a person going on to use illegal drugs.

Crucially, though, these problems were greater among those who were more naturally shy – and what's more, the results only applied to people who had multiple moves.

"Moving is not always bad," stresses Dr Shigehiro Oishi, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, whose study tested the relationship between the number of childhood moves and wellbeing in a sample of over 7,000 adults. "But on average, it is bad for introverted kids and has a surprising long-term effect, it seems."

Moving a lot makes it difficult for people to maintain long-term close relationships, explains Dr Oishi, adding that the study found the more times a child moved, the more likely they were to report lower life satisfaction and wellbeing, regardless of age, gender and education.

Dirk Flower, a psychologist who works with children and families at Flower Associates, isn't surprised by the findings. "Some military families move around every one to two years. I've had patients who grew up in this way and whilst they learned the skills of relationship building at school, they don't make much of a commitment to friendship because they've always had the experience of moving on. There's no doubt it has disrupted their personality because they have grown used to being more superficial," he explains.

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Whilst adults tend to focus on the practical issues around moving, children often focus on the losses the move will cause, he explains – friends and a familiar environment, in particular. They may also feel powerless, usually having no say in the decision to move.

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"The stress this can cause children is often underestimated," he says.

Moving can be particularly detrimental in adolescence, he adds. "This is a time when you are expected to be committed to a particular peer group and move away from your parents emotionally."

But, he stresses, psychological damage is by no means inevitable. Some children are naturally more resilient than others. It's also the case that if moves aren't to a new area and don't involve a change of school, the move may just wash over them. Likewise, more gregarious, outgoing children may not suffer. In some cases, he says, my friends are right that children may even benefit.

"I think the main thing that makes our children enjoy moving home is that we involve them right from the beginning," says one of my friends. "We take them to the houses we are considering, asking them what they think, and we always continue to talk a lot about the move, encouraging them to air about any concerns they might have."

Flower says this ticks all the boxes of what parents should be doing to prepare children for moving home. "It's so important to let the child know about the move as early as possible. Many times, I've seen parents wait until the last minute to tell them, but this disrupts their ability to grieve the things and people they'll miss, like neighbours, friends, school and their bedroom. Sometimes, children are affected very badly indeed by this."

Second, tell your children lots of information about the new situation and include a preparatory visit if you can. "It will make it both real and familiar and it will also give you an opportunity to focus on the nice things about the new home and reassure them that they can keep up links with their old life – something that is increasingly possible with technology. Thirdly, keep coming back to discussions about the move, as well as listening to your child."

Remember kids' concerns may not always be expressed verbally, he says. Some children may start wetting the bed, talking baby talk, refusing to eat or becoming shy or aggressive.

Talk the move up, adds psychologist Anita Abrams. "Just as you would prepare a child to go to school, talk about how nice it's going to be, even if you aren't keen on the move yourself. Also give choices. Although a child can't decide which home to move to, they can get involved in other ways like choosing a colour for their bedroom. Stress is always reduced when a child feels they have some control over the situation."

Educational psychologist Amanda Gummer points out that although the reason behind the move may be something good, unfortunately it may also be something traumatic. "If children are coping with other stresses like bereavement, divorce or a new sibling, it's good to try and delay the move until the child has coped with the original disruption if you possibly can," she advises.

So it seems that neither my friends nor me is simply right or wrong. Moving can be a positive experience for the whole family, but at the same time, it can be more advantageous to stay put than uproot a lot.

The main thing is that those who do move home, for whatever reason, go about it in the right way.

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