Explained: The Psychological Effects of Moving Frequently on Adults and Kids (and How to Ease the Transition)

You got a job offer in a new city you’d be silly to turn down. You’ve got to care for an aging parent so need to return home. You or your spouse is in the military. Whatever the reason, you’re moving, and packing up your life and starting anew can be intimidating and overwhelming. But how does it really affect you on a cognitive and emotional level? And is it something your family can bounce back from quickly? Read on to learn the psychological effects of moving frequently on adults and children—along with solutions for easing the acclimation process.

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woman carrying moving box
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How Do Frequent Moves Impact Adults?

Moving a lot is obviously stressful, but it can have more serious effects than stress on people in adulthood. Research published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine suggests that folks—including those with parents or guardians in the military—who have lived in many different places growing up have an increased risk of suicide, substance abuse and even early death.

For the study, researchers collected and analyzed data from 1.4 million people born in Denmark from 1971 to 1997. They had access to every residence children lived in from birth to age 14, and then tracked them from age 15 through their early 40s. Overall, 37 percent had moved at least once before their 15th birthday, and may of them had also moved frequently during infancy. However, people who moved more frequently during early adolescence were most likely to have adverse health outcomes later in life. Researchers found that each additional move was associated with an increased risk for psychological issues.

Research has also shown that people who move frequently are more likely to leave relationships behind along with physical possessions. In a 2016 paper published in the journal Personal Relationships, psychologists concluded that people who move more frequently tend to view both their stuff and their connections to other people as more disposable. Why? Probably because they’ve become accustomed to disposing of them.

It’s not all negative, though. People who move a lot might have stronger memories, at least according to research published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, which concluded that people are more likely to remember events that occur around a relocation. Lead author Karalyn Enz theorized that periods of life involving major transition—like moving—should give rise to a higher density of memories because the transitions give individual events a novel backdrop, which means they are laid more firmly in memory and/or rehearsed more frequently.

In other words, if you move around a lot, you may feel more stress and have fewer close connections than your peers who stay in one place. But you also probably remember each home clearly and have more distinct memories from which to draw.

girl preparing to move
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How Do Frequent Moves Impact Kids?

According to Oberlin psychology professor Nancy Darling, Ph.D., in, a 2010 study published in the Journal of Social and Personality Psychology, frequent moves are tough on kids and disrupt important friendships, but these effects are most problematic for kids who are introverted and those whose personalities tend toward anxiety and inflexibility. “Specifically, adults who moved frequently as kids have fewer high-quality relationships and tend to score lower on well-being and life satisfaction,” she told Psychology Today.

“One major reason that kids are negatively affected by moves is that moves are often precipitated by problems—like a divorce or job loss—that are tough on the family,” she adds. Darling also says that when parents are stressed and upset, their parenting suffers and the kids always, always, always notice. Additionally, moves are hardest on kids in the midst of other transitions like puberty and school changes. Middle school seems to be the toughest time to make a transition—which should surprise nobody who ever survived the trenches of seventh grade.

two women at a coffee shop
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How To Make New Friends As An Adult In A New Place

“When it comes to meeting new friends in a new city, you have to be patient with yourself,” says Shasta Nelson, friendship expert and author of Frientimacy. “A study came out last year that asked us how long it takes before it feels like we’re friends with somebody. We report that it takes 50 hours to go from meeting a stranger to becoming casual friends with that person and 80 to 100 hours to become real friends. After that, you’ll need to log approximately 200 hours to feel like someone is a best friend. Obviously, numbers vary depending on the person, but it’s a good reminder that friendship has to be developed, not discovered.”

In other words, you can’t expect to land on a brand-new social circle overnight. Nelson adds this piece of advice: “It’s important to look at it less like a treasure hunt where you’re auditioning people and see it more as a development. You’ve simply got to put in the time.” Here are a few more tips for creating a social circle in a new place.

1. Be a ‘Trampoline Listener

Referring to a study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, self-help author Eric Barker notes that “being likable can be as easy as listening to people and asking them to tell you more.” So how do you become a better listener? Researchers Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, who analyzed data about business coaching for the Harvard Business Review, noted that listening is not just about silently nodding your head: “To the contrary, people perceive the best listeners to be those who periodically ask questions that promote discovery and insight." So, instead of thinking of yourself as a sounding board, try more for the trampoline metaphor: You’re not just providing supporting, you’re also giving back energy and height. Yep, go ahead and interrupt your prospective new friend—as long as whatever you say demonstrates you took in and got inspired by what they said.

2. When You Offer Support, Be Specific

Whether it’s about a presentation your new bud is preparing or a fear that their child will have separation anxiety, avoid advising with platitudes. (See: “You got this!” or “Aww, I’m sure she’ll be fine.”) Zero in on a detail instead: “It sounds like you really did your research on the topic. Since you’ve memorized your key talking points, I can tell you’re going to kill it.” Not only will doing so make the person feel closer to you, reports The Cut’s Cari Romm, referencing a study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, but it will also make your new friend feel better. “They’re not the flashiest compliments, but they’re grounded ones,” Romm writes. “They’re based in facts. They’re steadying. And for someone awash in a sea of nerves, it’s a relief to have something to grab on to.”

3. Don’t Be Afraid to Overshare Occasionally 

One study published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology confirmed what anyone who overshares already instinctively knows: We like new friends better when they’re open books. “Positive associations were found between self-disclosure and the individual characteristics of self-esteem, relationship esteem…and responsiveness,” per the researchers. Psychology and Brain Sciences professor Dr. Susan Krauss Whitbourne on why oversharing works: “You assume that someone who discloses to you likes and trusts you,” she explains. However, you have to time your self-disclosure just right: too soon and you risk alienating your new friend, too late and you may miss the chance to connect. So, don't get weird too fast. 

4. Invest in Casual Acquaintances

Don’t be so quick to walk away from water cooler conversation or ignore the chatty Cathy in line at the coffee shop. “Even interacting with people with whom one has weak social ties has a meaningful influence on well-being,” reports The Atlantic, citing a study in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.  

5. Reconnect with People from Your Past

Another gem from The Atlantic, courtesy of a study in Organization Science: “Reviving dormant social ties can be especially rewarding. Reconnected friends can quickly recapture much of the trust they previously built, while offering each other a dash of novelty drawn from whatever they’ve been up to in the meantime.” So go ahead and track down your study abroad roommate and neighbor from three apartments ago.

kids playing outside
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How To Help Your Kids Make New Friends After A Move

Here are a few tactics to help your kids adjust to new surroundings, according to Bernardo J. Carducci, Ph.D., professor of psychology and director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeast.

1. Prepare Them for New Situations

Going to somebody’s house for the first time can be nerve-racking. Help your kid by talking her through the scenario beforehand. Try something like: “We’re going to Sally’s birthday party next week. Remember that you’ve been to birthday parties before, like at Uncle John’s house. At birthday parties, we play games and we eat cake. We’re going to do the same kind of thing, just at Sally's house.”

2. Lead by Example

“Never ask your child to do anything that you wouldn’t be willing to do yourself,” says Dr. Carducci. Be warm and friendly with people that you meet (children learn by mimicking behavior), but if you wouldn’t feel comfortable walking up to a group of strangers, then you can’t expect your child to do the same (even if those strangers are her new classmates).

3. Don’t Push Things Too Quickly

Introduce your kid to new things by using the “factorial approach,” a technique where you change just one or two things at a time. For example, start by inviting that new toddler neighbor (and mom friend!) over to your house for a playdate on your home turf. Once they’re playing together comfortably and happily, change the environment by bringing both kids to the park. Once that situation becomes more comfortable, you could invite another friend to join in. Go slowly to give your child time to adjust to and engage with each step.

4. Don’t Intervene

If you see your kid struggling to make friends at the playground, it’s tempting to step in and give her a gentle nudge toward the group hanging out by the swings. But Dr. Carducci warns that if you get involved, your child won’t learn “frustration tolerance” (i.e., how to deal with the particular situation that they find themselves in)—a valuable skill that she’ll need beyond the schoolyard.

5. But Do Stay Nearby (for a Little While)

Let’s say you’re dropping your child off at a birthday party. “Make it a point to stay there until she feels comfortable with the situation,” advises Dr. Carducci. The idea is to give her a chance to warm up to the noise and new environment. Stick around until she feels at ease with the group but then walk away. “Don’t stay the whole time—let her know that you’re going to be back and that she’s going to be fine.”

6. Be Open About Your Own Anxiety

Even less shy kids can demonstrate "situational shyness," explains Dr. Carducci, especially during periods of transition like moving or starting school. Let your kid know that everyone feels nervous from time to time. And more specifically, talk about a time where you felt social anxiety (like speaking in public) and how you handled it (you gave a presentation at work and felt really good afterward). Sometimes feeling less alone is all it takes for children (and grown-ups) to branch out and try something new.

sarah stiefvater

Wellness Director

Sarah Stiefvater is PureWow's Wellness Director. She's been at PureWow for ten years, and in that time has written and edited stories across all categories, but currently focuses...