Study: Effects of moving on kids' mental health

New research suggests that frequently changing schools during childhood may cause mental health issues in later years.
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Follow along as Jennifer Pinarski shares her experiences about giving up her big city job and lifestyle to live in rural Ontario with her husband, while staying home to raise their two young children.

There’s no other way to say it: moving sucks.

There’s the packing, the purging, the real estate hassles and, in the case of our family, long-term solo parenting.

The biggest goal of solo parenting is to cause minimal disruption to the lives of our children, especially our son who is halfway through second grade. This will be our family’s third move in four years and the third elementary school he will attend in that timespan. And, despite how everyone we talk to insists that children are resilient, I can’t help but feel guilty about subjecting our kids to yet another move. We know the short-term effects of a move will be awkward (making new friends and learning new school routines), but recent research out of the Warwick Medical School at the University of Warwick in the UK suggests that frequent school moves during childhood may cause mental health issues in later years.

Read more: Moving with kids >

Researchers interviewed 12-year-old students to find out whether they had experienced psychotic-like symptoms in the previous six months, such as hallucinations, delusions and thought interference. Students who had changed schools three or more times during their childhood were found to be 60 percent more likely to display at least one of the symptoms.

“Changing schools can be very stressful for students. Our study found that the process of moving schools may itself increase the risk of psychotic symptoms—independent of other factors. But additionally, being involved in bullying, sometimes as a consequence of repeated school moves, may exacerbate risk for the individual,” says Professor Swaran Singh.

The study goes on to say that changing schools often leads to feelings of low self-esteem and a sense of social defeat. These feelings could result in physiological consequences, including sensitisation of the mesolimbic dopamine system (which raises the risks of psychotic-like symptoms).

It all sounds like scary stuff, doesn’t it?

To me, there is a silver lining to this study—psychologists and other mental health experts can use the research as a tool to better helping families who are struggling with their children’s mental health. Dr. Cath Winsper, Senior Research Fellow at Warwick Medical School, goes as far as to suggest that schools should work to make sure new students feel more included. Anti-bullying campaigns across Canada will also help new students who might be targeted when they join a new school.

Read more: Bullying: What colour is your child’s courage? >

As for our family, we’re doing our best to make our move easier on the kids, like looking for housing in rural areas with nearby schools similar in size to our son’s current location. We’re also having conversations about their concerns and fears—and, of course, the good things that come with moving, like making new friends.

But, did I mention that moving sucks?

What are your tips for children starting a new school? Tweet me at @jenpinarski.

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