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.”