Tree species are predicted to track future climate by shifting their geographic distributions, but climate-mediated migrations are not apparent in a recent continental-scale analysis. To better understand the mechanisms of a possible migration lag, we analyzed relative recruitment patterns by comparing juvenile and adult tree abundances in climate space. One would expect relative recruitment to be higher in cold and dry climates as a result of tree migration with juveniles located further poleward than adults. Alternatively, relative recruitment could be higher in warm and wet climates as a result of higher tree population turnover with increased temperature and precipitation. Using the USDA Forest Service's Forest Inventory and Analysis data at regional scales, we jointly modeled juvenile and adult abundance distributions for 65 tree species in climate space of the eastern United States. We directly compared the optimal climate conditions for juveniles and adults, identified the climates where each species has high relative recruitment, and synthesized relative recruitment patterns across species. Results suggest that for 77% and 83% of the tree species, juveniles have higher optimal temperature and optimal precipitation, respectively, than adults. Across species, the relative recruitment pattern is dominated by relatively more abundant juveniles than adults in warm and wet climates. These different abundance-climate responses through life history are consistent with faster population turnover and inconsistent with the geographic trend of large-scale tree migration. Taken together, this juvenile–adult analysis suggests that tree species might respond to climate change by having faster turnover as dynamics accelerate with longer growing seasons and higher temperatures, before there is evidence of poleward migration at biogeographic scales.