Summer 2014

Teen Angst on Moving Day

Study finds rise in need for counseling after families relocate

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Illustration: Brian Stauffer

Lots of kids get anxious when parents start talking about securing moving vans and packing things up for a big family move. But a recent analysis of more than 500,000 children who underwent the experience found that the chances an adolescent might need mental health care rose by as much as 20 percent after a move, according to a report in Reuters Health.

“Knowing how moves affect psychological health issues in children is important so families and health-care providers can anticipate those challenges and prepare accordingly,” said Jeffrey Millegan, lead author of the study and a psychiatrist based at Naval Medical Center in San Diego, Calif. Millegan noted that while relocations have long been a hallmark of military life, more civilian families are moving from place to place “as our economy becomes more dynamic.”

Thirty-five million Americans, representing more than 10 percent of the country’s population, had a geographic move in 2010, according to a report on Millegan’s study in the Journal of Adolescent Health. The research used medical records for children of active-duty service personnel between 2006 and 2009. All children were between ages 6 and 17, and about 25 percent of them had moved over the past year. Researchers divided the children into two age groups, ages 6 to 11 and 12 to 17, and then tracked their respective health-care visits during 2009. 

The study found that older kids needed more help adjusting to their new locale. Compared to peers who had not moved, the teenagers showed a 20 percent higher likelihood of visiting the emergency room for a psychiatric issue. Younger children saw only a 3 percent increase in the need for mental-health care.

“It shouldn’t come as a surprise to us that adolescents have a difficult time making adjustments,” Christopher Bellonci, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the Floating Hospital for Children at Tufts Medical Center, told Reuters. “The job of adolescents is to find a peer group and an identity outside the home, and that is harder when your peer group and school are disrupted by a move.”

“Change is stressful,” said Bellonci, an associate professor of psychiatry at Tufts. He recommends that parents talk with their kids at length about any upcoming transitions planned for the family.

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