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The Brood: Getting ready for a big move? Research says prep the kids

Research shows that moving can have some negative long-term impacts on kids, but there's good news too.
Research shows that moving can have some negative long-term impacts on kids, but there's good news too.
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Getting ready for a move is hard work. There’s a lot to consider when relocating your family— finding a place, packing everything into boxes, renting a moving truck, the list goes on.

Now, you can add getting your kids ready to the top of your to do list. New findings suggest there may be long-term impacts on children to think about.

A recent study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that moving during childhood was linked to all sorts of negative outcomes later in life.

But moving is a fact of life for many families, so what should parents know about the impact of moving on kids? 

Fred Medway, distinguished Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of South Carolina, talked with Alex Cohen about the impact of moving on kids.

Researchers look at all sorts of factors that can influence a child's development-- schools, parenting styles, sleep, nutrition-- to what extent do researchers and psychologists look at moving and how that affects a kid?

We certainly do and we also look very closely at the reasons for a move. The research is a little different based upon whether you're moving for an upward mobility corporate move, for a divorce, for a homelessness situation, or a military situation. Each of those will give you different kinds of outcomes for the most part.

Overall, is there a sense of whether moving is good for a kid or bad for a kid?

More of the research indicates that it's not bad for kids. It's not necessarily always good, but generally it's not bad. The thing that we need to look out for is are there any preexisting conditions that could be exacerbated by a move. For example if children already have reading problems, or anxiety, or difficulty making friends, then when you throw the move on top of that, that may then make it a little more difficult when they get to a new residence.

Does it matter how far you're moving?

Yes, but it's not simply in terms of miles. The real big issue is whether you are changing schools if you're a school-aged child. That certainly is a big one. So you could be moving a block or two away, but if you're changing schools, that's going to have a more profound impact. When we get more into the miles issue is when you're moving into more of a cultural change. So if you're moving from the East Coast to the West Coast you've got some cultural stuff to deal with. Or moving into places where there might be a bigger population or a more urban setting. So it's not just miles per se. What we're looking for are what sorts of changes in one's environment are we asking kids to deal with.

What about age and how that influences all of this? If a kid is moving when he or she is just a year or two old, they probably won't remember it down the line, right?

That's certainly true. However there is some research to indicate that even for preschool kids, it's not necessarily a rosy thing. Again it really depends on what that new environment looks like compared with the old environment. Most people assume that moving is the most problematic for kids in their high school years, when in fact the middle school years tend to be the most problematic. Usually around 7th or 8th grade. Those are the years where the moves are the toughest mostly because the peer influences are really so strong at those times and when they have to leave friends it makes things more difficult. Nowadays with Skype and FaceTime and the Internet it's really easier to maintain those relationships.

All of this is very comforting to hear, but it seems to run contrary to a study that sparked our interest in this topic. It came out recently from the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. This looked at data from people born in Denmark between the years of 1971 and 1997, and researchers found that moving during childhood was linked to all sorts of negative outcomes-- suicide attempts, criminality, psychiatric disorders. The risks increased for kids who moved beyond the ages of 11 or 12 and for kids who moved once a year or more than that. Is the main issue here moving too much?

I think there are some similarities in what we're saying, because this research also seems to say that after age 11 we need to be watching things that can become a little more problematic. I would certainly agree with that. Most of the research I have seen has not looked at what we call 'very frequent movers,' ones that move once a year or more. And let me add that here in the U.S., because of economic reasons, we're only just starting to see frequent moving pick back up. So there's many cultural issues happening here as well. But I would end with this, that I would really wonder what is going on in a family that's moving maybe once a year. What's driving that?

What should parents and caregivers keep in mind when talking with kids about a move and making it as smooth a transition as possible?

Here I'm going to parrot what psychologists say about most things in the world. The answer is you have to be positive, optimistic and upbeat. And comforting and reassuring too. We're now, as psychologists, interviewed many times about how do we talk to children about the tragic events they see going on in the world. The number one rule is not only to allow them to express their feelings but to be comforting and supportive. And really not let them believe that the world is unpredictable or it's negative. And really the same things hold when it comes to moving because many times kids go into this thinking that it's going to be more bad than good. But we do have to go beyond that and do our homework and make sure that on the other end there are all the things in place that a child needs to be comfortable, like finding doctors and getting kids enrolled in school.

What about positive impacts of moving on kids? I moved a lot before I went to college and I credit that with my ability to adapt to new situations and the fact that I like traveling a lot. Is that the correct connection to make that moving as a kid can make you a more adaptable adult?

Yes, that's definitely true. The other benefits that we sometimes see are that kids are much more aware of other cultures, and more open to different kinds of people, and better able to roll with different kinds of punches, and they just simply become open to many different things. That's a very very big benefit. But if you're starting with a child who is, by their temperament or personality, shy and withdrawn, they're going to have more difficulty with these challenges.

Questions and responses have been edited for clarity.