‘Mum, the removal van is here again!’
Emma Lee-Potter has moved house 12 times in 25 years. She explores the effect that moving can have on children.
I have a serious moving house habit. It dates back to my childhood, when my father was in the RAF and we moved houses (and sometimes countries) every year. It meant that I was always the new girl at school – the one who didn’t have a clue who to give my dinner money to or where to hang my PE bag.
I didn’t mean to inflict the same thing on my own children but that’s exactly what I‘ve done. Thanks to my husband’s job, my family has moved house an embarrassing 12 times in 25 years and just like me, my son and daughter have been to a ridiculous number of schools. Friends who still use antiquated address books grumble that our page is a mess of crossings-out and ask why we can’t stay in one place.
We lived in France for a while and my four-year-old daughter attended an école maternelle, where she was the only non-French speaking child. It took her a term to pluck up the courage to say ‘bonjour’ to her teacher and she was perplexed by the loopy writing that all French children learn. She was even more stunned by the fact that after lunch her whole class had to have a nap on the floor. ‘And one boy even takes his dummy,’ she exclaimed indignantly.
So you can imagine my dismay when I discovered that moving house can harm your children. Research suggests that children whose families move repeatedly perform less well at school. They sometimes find it harder to make friends, experience behavioural problems and may be less happy in later life. One study even found that moving a lot before the age of 18 increases the likelihood of going on to use illegal drugs.
‘Moving can impede children's academic success, as well as their emotional and behavioural wellbeing,’ says Rebekah Levine Coley, professor of applied developmental and educational psychology at Boston College in Massachusetts, who has written several papers on the subject.
‘Children who move may show a decline in school grades, an increase in sadness and loneliness and an increase in problem behaviour, such as acting aggressively and getting into fights and arguments.’
Professor Coley warns that multiple moves exacerbate the problem. ‘Our research suggests that the detrimental effects of moving are cumulative. Moving multiple times is linked with worse functioning for children than moving once or twice, though even the latter is stressful.’
Moving house when your children are small has less impact than when they are older though. ‘Moves in early childhood appear to be less influential on children's later academic and school success than moves when children are already in school,’ says Professor Coley. ‘Not surprisingly, the latter appear to interrupt children's academic progress more substantially.’
So are there any upsides for children facing a family move? After all, today’s turbulent job market often necessitates moving and unless one parent does a weekly commute (yes, we’ve tried that too) most families have to grit their teeth and get on with it.
My own children coped well and became resilient and independent. Most of our moves were during their primary school years and although they missed their old friends, they found moving to new places exciting. When we uprooted from North Yorkshire to Northamptonshire, my daughter loved being able to choose her bedroom décor while my son was thrilled to have a garden where he could climb trees and cycle to his heart’s content.
As they got older it was easy to stay in touch with friends on Facebook and WhatsApp and they developed a better sense of geography than peers who stayed put. They were so unfazed by moving that they both chose to do an Erasmus year in France as part of their university degrees.
But not all moves are positive, particularly when divorce, family breakdown or bereavement are involved. Chartered psychologist Elaine Douglas advises parents facing traumas like these to try and keep at least one thing in children’s lives constant.
‘Don’t change every single thing at the same time because that is quite hard to cope with,’ she says. ‘If you can keep your child at the same school it’s a bonus, although it isn’t always possible. Things happen in life that we wouldn’t necessarily choose but it’s important to keep children’s routines and friendships going and to minimise disruption as far as possible.’
So how can parents help their children prepare for moving to a new house and school? Douglas suggests involving them in planning the move (but don’t let them dictate terms), talking about the exciting opportunities ahead (like a fantastic cinema nearby or a great football club) and sorting out their new bedrooms quickly.
‘Present it as something they can look forward to, rather than as a daunting experience,’ she says. ‘If your child isn’t particularly outgoing make sure they keep in touch with their best friends and invite them to come and stay.’
Moving house when your children are at secondary school and approaching GCSEs and A levels is undoubtedly harder, but not impossible. When a friend had to move house just a few weeks before her elder daughter’s A level exams she was desperately worried about the impact.
She decided to make her daughter’s new bedroom a priority. On the day of the move, her daughter arrived home from school to find that her mum had set up her desk, books and revision notes exactly as they had been in the old house. It worked like a dream – and yes, her daughter got the A level grades she needed for her Oxford place.