The conventional wisdom about moving mid-year, or moving at all, when kids are in high school is “don’t.” But it isn’t that simple. Job opportunities don’t always happen conveniently in the summer. Elderly parents who become sick and need help can’t wait until your kids graduate. Divorce or financial setbacks may force a parent to move in with distant family. There are many good, and important, reasons why the needs of the family take priority over the needs and desires of the family teens.
Nonetheless, moving a teen during the latter part of high school can have serious academic, social, and psychological consequences that should be taken into consideration. Unlike younger children, for whom the family is the center of their universe, teens are at the stage of life where they are beginning to separate from the family. A move at that time either can push the teen back into a more dependent stage he or she can’t tolerate or may artificially accelerate an independence he or she isn’t ready for.
Should They Stay or Should They Go?
Sometimes it’s best for the teenager to move with the family. Sometimes it’s best to find a way for the teen to finish out high school and join the family later. What to do depends on the your teen’s developmental stage, the family’s values and relationships, available options, and the academic consequences of changing from one high school to another.
Normal teen development involves the push and pull of finding a way to assert their own identities while at the same time maintaining family membership. It’s a challenging time for many. The prickly teen princess, who one minute doesn’t want to be seen with you, may be sobbing in your arms the next. The kid who barely grunts at you at dinner is the same kid who would be crushed if you didn’t go to his game. This is a time for talking about life after high school, searching for colleges or other options, and experimenting with the idea of life on their own. The balance of dependence and independence sometimes seems to shift hourly. Some kids are ready for an early separation. Others simply aren’t.
Monica, for example, surprised everyone including herself. Following her parents’ divorce, Monica’s mother decided that the best way to get back on her feet was to move in with her own mother, 300 miles away.
Monica’s dad had just moved in with a girlfriend who didn’t want her with them. A family friend was more than willing to have her move in. Although unusually mature in some ways, Monica found the idea of being separated from her mom and younger sisters wrenching. “I thought I had this year to get ready to leave home. Now they’re all leaving me.”
Feeling abandoned by her father and unwanted by his new partner, Monica realized she needed to make the move with her mother. “I want my mom to help me decide about college. I need to feel that my mom’s house is my house too.”
By sophomore year, the high school society usually has decided where everyone will be in the social hierarchy. For the kids who are socially successful, leaving the security of that role can be frightening and emotionally devastating. For kids who are on the bottom, however, the chance to leave can be a relief.
Jake moved in October. His old school had eliminated phys ed and health classes as a cost- cutting measure. The new school has an iron-clad rule that a student must have 4 semesters of health and 4 semesters of PE to graduate. The result? Jake is taking 2 health and 2 PE classes each semester this year to graduate. He’s an A student. He’d rather be taking French IV, Calculus II, and Organic Chemistry to beef up his transcript for applying to elite colleges. Instead, he’s stuck with 4 health and 4 PE classes if he wants a diploma.
Did his parents make the wrong decision when they encouraged him to move with them? Not really. In his old school, Jake was the butt of bullying and jokes. A socially and physically awkward kid since grade school, he never figured out how to fit in or even to be ignored. For Jake, 8 health and gym classes in his senior year is small price to pay for the relief of getting away from his tormentors and having another crack at the high school social scene. “No one here knows I was an outcast,” he said to me one afternoon. “I’m trying out being different. I won’t really be part of this place since I moved here as a senior. But at least I’m not a bottom-feeder.”
All Schools are Not Created Equal
All high schools are not alike. If the receiving school is structured markedly differently from the old school, it might be reason enough to find a way for your student to finish out high school before moving. If that isn’t possible, it’s important that you and your teen know what to expect. Work with school personnel to smooth the transition.
Emma, for example, always did well in her old school which operated on a long block system with two academic classes per trimester. Last winter, in the middle of her junior year, the family moved to a town where the high school is organized on the more traditional four major classes plus an elective plus a study hall per semester.
Emma wasn’t used to juggling the assignments for 5 classes. Once a confident teen who actively participated in every class, she became overwhelmed and depressed. Her role in her classes and her positive sense of herself as a learner were seriously challenged. The struggle made it very hard to even think of a social life. “I wish I’d really understood the difference between the two schools before we moved,” her mom told me. “We would still have made the decision to move but at least Emma would have known what to expect. Maybe we could have figured out a way to make that first few months easier.”
Academics isn’t the only factor when moving teens. A kid who has worked hard to excel in sports or theatre or music may find it impossible to participate in the same way when he or she moves. If the family has the option for the teen to stay behind and finish out a stellar extracurricular career, it might be a positive choice, both in terms of the child’s mental health and in terms of family harmony.
Darnal was a basketball star in his small town. His family moved in early January last year to an urban area with a bigger school and more athletes. He did get on the team but he wasn’t a star anymore. In his first three games, he got to play for a total of 15 minutes.
Darnal couldn’t stand it. He contacted his best friend’s parents and begged to stay with them to finish out his senior year. After a weekend of phone calls, arguments, debates, and finally, good talk, everyone agreed it was best for him to leave home early. Not only was he happier (and more successful in school) but his family didn’t have to weather his anger and frustration.
Finally, senior year of high school is for many kids a year of closure. It’s a year of “lasts” that helps the teen transition to a new life of “firsts.” The last game, the last biology test, the last dance, lead to the first day at college or the first day of an adult job. For some kids, finishing out high school and graduating with their class in front of people who have known them for a good portion of their lives is a ritual that ties up one life stage and opens another. How important it is depends on the child and the family. Sometimes it’s important enough for the teen to be left behind while the rest of the family establishes a new home.
Elaina stayed behind when her dad was transferred by his company and the family moved 500 miles away. She has been with the same friend-group of four girls since kindergarten. They’ve gone to school together, hung out together, gone to the same dance classes, been in the same community theatre group, and on the same field hockey team. They’d always talked about their senior year as a year to celebrate together by being in the senior class show, sharing a limo for the prom, and going to the annual big bash graduation party that is put on by the junior class. They knew they were going to be off to different colleges due to their different interests and goals. They knew they wouldn’t be together as a clique through adulthood. They just had it figured that senior year would be a year of bringing their time together to a close.
Elaina certainly loves her family but she also has developed an important bond with these best friends. When one of them suggested she just finish out the year living in her house, it seemed to her and her family like the natural thing to do. Her family will be coming back to town for graduation weekend to be part of the extended “family” that these 4 families have been for each other for the past 15 years.
Moving mid-year can work with a minimum of teenage angst if it is done with care and while taking the young person’s needs into account. Time spent assessing your child’s personality, talents, and emotional needs, researching the receiving school, thinking through consequences for future goals, and exploring options is time well spent. When teens are treated as the emerging young adults they are by taking their lives into account, they can become partners in this new stage of family life.