If kids are experts at anything it’s making friends. For them it’s effortless, as if it were encoded in their DNA to be agreeable and gregarious, even if they can’t pronounce those traits yet. Some of their most intense bonds form when they’re young, so shouldn’t it make sense that constantly flipping the script and switching schools can lead to loneliness?

That’s the finding of a recent study, conducted by researchers at Warwick Medical School. The team looked at members of the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC), popularly known as Children of the 90s — in particular, 6,448 mothers and their children born between 1991 and 1992. When the researchers checked in at the 12-year mark, they found that kids who had moved three or more times in their lives were 60 percent more likely to display at least one definite psychotic symptom.

“Psychosis” as a clinical diagnosis covers an incredibly wide range of disorders. Children with psychotic symptoms could suffer from relatively benign, but otherwise abnormal behavior, to crippling, dissociative schizophrenia. In the present study, the researchers discovered that frequently uprooted children were more likely to experience feelings of low self-esteem and a sense of social defeat. They felt isolated from other people and often turned their emotions inward.

Worse, these emotional components sometimes led to physiologic responses, such as a sensitized mesolimbic dopamine system — a pathway in the brain responsible for, among other things, the slide into schizophrenia. Kids who moved from house-to-house a lot during childhood were more likely to be vulnerable to this heightened risk, though it wasn’t always the moving itself that led to that risk.

“Changing schools can be very stressful for students,” lead researcher, Swaran Singh, said in a news release. “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.”

So, in reality, the problem has two heads. The first problem arises at the origin of the move, namely, assuring kids that when their families move, it’s not because of something to do with the children or that their senses of self are somehow reflected in the move. The other problem comes at the destination. Adjusting to life as “the new kid” is never easy. The slate of inside jokes must be wiped clean, and fitting in gets harder with age. So parents should be mindful, the team explains, of the fact that kids aren’t always kind to the new kid. Rinsed and repeated multiple times, loneliness seems all but inevitable.

“It’s clear that we need to keep school mobility in mind when clinically assessing young people with psychotic disorders,” Dr. Catherine Winsper, senior research fellow and co-researcher, said in the release. “It should be explored as a matter of course as the impact can be both serious and potentially long lasting. Schools should develop strategies to help these students to establish themselves in their new environment.”

 

Source: Singh S, Winsper C, Wolke D, Bryson A. School Mobility and Prospective Pathways to Psychotic-Like Symptoms in Early Adolescence: A Prospective Birth Cohort Study. American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. 2014.