Navigating the trauma of moving


A very devoted and concerned father recently expressed his concern to me about a job change that would require his family to relocate to another community. He was worried that uprooting his son in his junior year of high school would cause resentment and make his son’s last year or two of high school miserable for him.

I realized as I was preparing this article that I’ve never once in 25 years written about families relocating. And yet in Fayette County, Ga., the migration rate (the term for how frequently people come and go from a community) is almost four times higher than the state in general (based on data for 2013).

I suppose that makes sense. Our county is made up of lots of people who work in various industries, such as the airline industry or the military, which may require relocation. Many of these families have children and have moved into our county primarily for the high quality of life we enjoy here.

Whether you are moving across town or across borders, many of the difficulties that children face are the same. When their neighborhood changes, their school changes, and their recreational teams/centers change, moving can be tough.

Here is what we know. In the long run, younger children manage big moves better than older children and introverted children manage less well than extroverted children. Likewise, anxious children have more trouble managing a move than easy-going children.

Middle school is the toughest time to move, followed by high school, and then by elementary. Middle and high school children who are in close relationships/friendships have a more difficult time than children who have few or no close relationships.

Stress of any kind, but especially the stress of moving — starting a new job, or leaving close friends — takes its toll on parenting. This makes it harder for children. Finally, families that are cohesive and close deal with moving better than families that are distant and characterized by poor communication.

Suppose your child is a middle school student, introverted, anxious, and typified by other things I mentioned above that make it harder to manage a move. This doesn’t mean the child can’t manage – only that it will be harder. Here are some things to do that can help your family navigate a move.

Ease into your move when possible. Take drives around the new community, visit the school and take a tour, and let your child be a part of the decision-making process when appropriate. Give your child as much control over his/her room as you can, encouraging ownership and personalization.

Helping children anticipate difficult times and proactively planning coping strategies will make it easier for them, regardless of their ages.

The difficulties of moving can actually be helpful. Managing change is a fact of life and a good skill to help children learn. Walk with them, teaching your children how to develop new relationships and how to build a new life in their new community.

At the same time, provide opportunities to maintain friendships from their former home. Go back to visit when you can. When that is difficult or impossible, use our amazing technology. Telephones, FaceTime, Twitter, Facebook, Skype, WhatsApp, and a host of other forms of electronic and social media allow us to be in communication with the people we care about even when they live elsewhere on the planet.

I don’t know what my friend will chose to do. He may elect to forego the promotion and stay where he is for two more years so his son will graduate. If he does, then great. That says a lot about his willingness to sacrifice personal goals for the good of his family. But if he chooses otherwise, his son will adapt. They are a strong family and he has a good relationship with his son.

He will have some tough transitions, but learning to navigate this change is a skill that will serve him well for the rest of his life. Either way, if my friend mentors his son, they can face the various trials of life together without being defeated.

[Gregory K. Moffatt, Ph.D., is a college professor, published author, licensed counselor, certified professional counselor supervisor, newspaper columnist and public speaker. His website is Dr. Moffatt is a featured expert on the upcoming Discovery Channel television series “Hostage.” He holds an M.A. in Counseling and a Ph.D. in Psychology from Georgia State University and has taught at the college level for over 30 years.]