Moving during childhood linked to poor mental health

(Reuters Health) - Kids who move many times during childhood may be more likely to experience mental health problems than children who don’t change addresses, an Irish study suggests.

After five or more moves, children are more than three times as likely to experience mental health problems, according to an analysis that tracked almost 50,000 youngsters in Northern Ireland from 2001 to 2011.

The impact of moving on mental health may also be worse for older children, particularly if they have to leave behind friends and change schools, said lead study author Foteini Tseliou of Queens University in Belfast.

“Moving house can be a hugely stressful experience for the parents and the family as a whole as it can be associated with change in social environment and networks, and other aspects of the physical and social environment,” Tseliou said by email. “Parents need to be aware that such a change can be even more stressful for children as they may be more sensitive and less resilient.”

To understand the impact of moving on childhood mental health, Tseliou and colleagues started analyzing data on children who were aged eight and under in 2001, using census records to assess address changes.

Then, they linked the data on moving to mental health information reported at the end of the study in 2011.

Overall, slightly more than half of the children moved at least once during the 10-year study period, and about 13 percent moved at least three times, the researchers report in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

Children were more likely to move if their families rented housing, or if they owned homes in less affluent areas.

Kids who were in two-parent families at both the start and the end of the study were less likely to change addresses than children who experienced a divorce or separation in the household.

Kids were about 2.5 times more likely to move if they started the study in a two-parent household and lived with just one parent ten years later.

The researchers didn’t find a connection between moving and physical health, only mental health.

One shortcoming of the study is that the census data may not capture every move, potentially underestimating the frequency of address changes the children experienced, the authors acknowledge.

Another limitation was the mental health assessment, which was based on one census question and could be answered by parents on behalf of their children, the researchers also note.

“Only 263 (0.53 percent) reported chronic mental health problems, a low prevalence of poor mental health conditions compared to what might be expected,” Martin Lindstrom, a researcher at Lund University in Sweden who wasn’t involved in the study, said by email.

Even so, understanding the connection between mental health and frequent childhood moves may better equip parents and health care providers to help kids navigate these changes, noted Katherine Marcal, a researcher at Washington University in St. Louis who wasn’t involved in the study.

“Healthy child development is supported by stability and security across domains,” Marcal said by email. “Housing is one important aspect of this, along with parenting, family dynamics, neighborhood factors, the school environment, peer influences, etc.”

SOURCE: Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, online October 16, 2015.