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The Hidden Costs of Uprooting Your Family

A Danish study suggests moving during one’s early to mid-adolescent years is a risk factor for a variety of serious adult problems.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Thad Zajdowicz/Flickr)

Moving to a new city can be a traumatic experience, especially if you’re a child who has no say in the matter. As Pixar reminded us last year in Inside Out, saying goodbye to friends and familiar places can throw a budding adolescent badly off balance.

But kids are resilient, right? Perhaps not as much as you think.

A large-scale study finds disrupting Danish youths’ lives in this way raises the odds that, as adults, they will be forced to deal with such grave issues as attempted suicide, substance abuse, and violent criminality.

“The elevated risks were observed across the socioeconomic spectrum,” writes a research team led by Roger Webb of the University of Manchester. While conceding that “frequent residential mobility could be a marker for familial psychosocial difficulties,” the researchers argue that relocation to a new residence — especially during early to mid-adolescence — “may be intrinsically harmful.”

The study, published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, utilized data on 1,475,030 people — basically everyone born in Denmark to Danish parents between the years 1971 and 1977 who were still living in the country by their 15th birthday.

For Danes of this generation, childhood moves were not uncommon, with 37 percent relocating across a municipal boundary at least once before reaching their 15th birthday.

The researchers noted how many times each child moved across municipal borders (which generally meant transferring to a new school) during their first 14 years, and at what ages these moves occurred. Reasons for these residential relocations were not listed; some were presumably the result of the parents separating, while in others the family moved intact from one place to another.

The subjects were then tracked into their early 40s. Using national data sets, the researchers noted their involvement, if any, in violent behavior (either criminal activity or attempted suicide); whether they were diagnosed with a mental illness, or had substance-abuse issues; and whether they died prematurely.

Your precious glassware isn’t the only thing that can get damaged during a move.

The researchers found moving during childhood increased the odds of experiencing each of those disturbing outcomes, “with elevation in risk being particularly marked if frequent residential change occurs during early to mid-adolescence.”

Essentially, the older a child was at the time of the move, the greater the chances he or she would have serious problems in early to mid-adulthood.

To cite some specifics: The risk that a Danish man or woman would attempt to take their own life was significantly higher if they had moved to a new city during early to mid-adolescence. Furthermore, their odds were “markedly raised if multiple annual relocations occurred at ages 12–14.”

“The pattern of association between childhood mobility and later violent offending showed the same trends,” the researchers report, “except for an even sharper spike in risk with exposure to multiple relocations in a year during mid-adolescence.”

In addition, the researchers observed a “sharp spike in risk” of substance-abuse issues for those who had moved between ages 12 and 14. Importantly, these patterns were not restricted to poorer or less-educated families.

“Relocated adolescents often face a double stress of adapting to an alien environment, a new school, and building new friendships and social networks,” the researchers note, “while simultaneously coping with the fundamental biological and developmental transitions that their peers also experience.”

So if you’re thinking of relocating your family across town or across the country, and you have a child around junior-high-school age, you’ll want to seriously consider the risks that accompany uprooting.

Your precious glassware isn’t the only thing that can get damaged during a move.