When it comes to moving, depression in your child may not be a concern that's top of your mind. However, some research shows that moving, especially the transition to a new school, may lead to depressive symptoms in a child.
This is, of course, a possibility. Though research shows a connection between moving and depression in children, that doesn't mean that every child will be impacted by a move in this way. You have to make decisions that are right for you and your family, and that may just be making a move. Fortunately, there are a few things that you and other concerned parents can do to ensure a smooth transition for your child and a happy life in her new home.
Factors That May Impact Your Child When You MoveSometimes the details of a move are non-negotiable, but if there is some flexibility in your situation, there are a few factors that can make the transition easier on your child:
- Moving Schools - Whenever possible, keep your child at the same school or a school in the same district. Research has found that moving schools can be particularly difficult for children in the elementary and middle school years. If your child has previously fallen behind academically, moving to a more advanced curriculum may overwhelm her -- or even cause her to fall further behind. For a child, academic failure can be devastating to self-esteem. Low self-esteem is common among depressed children.
- Divorce - If you are moving as the result of a divorce or other family restructuring, you will need to be especially sensitive to your child's needs and feelings. Your child will not only be adjusting to a new home and environment, but a new family structure. A move combined with a change in the family could be traumatic for a child and trigger feelings of insecurity, isolation or anger, which are often seen in depression. Keeping your child's routine, as much as possible, may help keep a sense of stability in her life.
- Friends - While it is important for your child to make new friends in her new environment, it is also important for her to maintain old friendships. Allow your child to communicate and see her old friends whenever possible. The more relationships that your child has, the more she will feel supported and confident in her ability to make new friends. A child who has no peers to connect with may begin to withdraw from school and social activities.
- Previous Mental Illness - Children who have had previous mental health illness, especially depression, are more likely to have another period of depression. According to Dr. Karl Alexander and colleagues, who published a study in the Journal of Educational Research in 1996, moving is a significant life stress for children. Their findings reveal that moving schools can be as traumatic as having a parent hospitalized for a serious medical illness. Some children, especially those with a past mental health illness, are prone to depression as a result of stress. Be on alert for signs and symptoms (see below), and consider speaking with your child's therapist about a care plan before you leave. You may also want to ask for a referral to a new provider in your new town.
How Parents Can be ProactiveJoining local groups and reaching out to new people will show your child that she is not alone in starting over. Allow your child to openly talk about her feelings about the move and be sympathetic to her fears. Also, be sure to not to let your own anxiety about the move scare your child.
If you know that your move will come with additional stressors, consider starting your child in counseling. This could be especially helpful if she has had past episodes of depression.
When it May Be DepressionUnfortunately for some children, the stress of a move may trigger symptoms of depression. As such, parents should be aware of the symptoms in children, which may include:
- Withdrawal from friends and family
- Unexplained crying
- Clinging to a parent
- Feelings of guilt
- Loss of interest in things of former interest
- Academic decline
- Thoughts or actions of self-harm
- Persistent unexplained physical complaints (e.g., headache, bellyache)
- Appetite and/or weight changes
- Sleeping problems
It is normal for a child to be nervous about a move. She may need more attention and reassurance for the first few weeks of the transition. She may even have a brief disturbance of sleep, which should return to normal without treatment in several days.
If you notice any symptoms of depression, new or unexplained behaviors in your child, it is important to consult with your child's physician. A physician can determine a cause and treatment, if appropriate. It is extremely important to identify and treat depression early in children.
Adjusting to Divorce. American Academy of Pediatrics: Healthy Children. Accessed: 08/07/2010. http://www.healthychildren.org/English/family-life/family-dynamics/types-of-families/Pages/Adjusting-to-Divorce.aspx
Avshalom Caspi, Karen Sugden, Terrie E. Moffitt, Alan Taylor, Ian W. Craig, HonaLee Harrington, Joseph McClay, Jonathan Mill, Judy Martin, Anthony Braithwaite, Richie Poulton. "Influence of Life Stress on Depression: Moderation by a Polymorphism in the 5-HTT Gene." Science. 18 Jul 2003 301:386-389.
Helping Children Adjust to a Move. American Academy of Pediatrics: Healthy Children. Accessed: 08/07/2010. http://www.healthychildren.org/English/family-life/family-dynamics/Pages/Helping-Children-Adjust-to-a-Move.aspx
How Do Children and Adolescents Experience Depression? National Institute on Mental Health. Accessed: May 30, 2010. http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/depression-in-children-and-adolescents/index.shtml
Karl L. Alexander, Doris R. Entwisle and Susan L. Dauber. "Children in Motion: School Transfers and Elementary School Performance." Journal of Educational Research September - October 1996 90(1) 3-12.