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90's FAMILY | REAL LIFE

Moving Too Often Can Be Devastating to Children

November 03, 1996|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Even in the best circumstances, moving isn't easy for kids.

A freshman at UC Santa Cruz recalled what moving across the country to California was like for her when she was 14:

"It was like leaving everything I knew. . . .

"I said I was going to run away. I had this whole escape plan out of my room.

"At lunch I had to be by myself, in a place where all the kids knew each other but I didn't know any of them."

One family in five, adding up to millions of children, moves every year in the United States. In the worst circumstances--when it happens too often, or under the stress of divorce, remarriage or financial crisis--the effects can be devastating to children.

Constant mobility distracts parents from parenting, makes it harder for children to attach to friends and teachers and also robs children of the ability to achieve, according to Richard Weissbourd, a teacher at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and author of "The Vulnerable Child," (Addison-Wesley, 1996).

"They lose a basic sense of mastery that comes with staying in one place for a long time," he said.

"Every time a kid moves, it reduces the chance that he'll finish school by more than 2%," he said.

The stresses of moving are particularly severe in areas of concentrated poverty where as many as 80% of all children change schools every year, he said.

In researching his book, Weissbourd encountered a 10-year-old who came to school with a coat over his head for the first three weeks. "It turned out this was the 15th school he'd been in in four years," he said.

He found a girl, starting her fourth school in two years, standing alone at the edge of the playground. She expected to be gone soon and knew it took a long time to make friends. "She didn't expect to have them," he said.

Moving can affect children differently at different developmental stages. Young children need consistency and reliability. Some mobile children become adept at forming casual friendships, a skill that works well in middle childhood, but causes trouble in adolescence when friends require greater intimacy. According to specialists at Egleston Children's Hospital in Atlanta, uprooted teens can develop depression or adjustment disorders, and are at greater risk for substance abuse and sexual activity.

After moving to California at age 14, the UC freshman said her mother went with her to school on the first day, and brought her home for lunch when she couldn't bear another isolated noon break.

Her parents also shared their own mixed feelings about the move and told her the move could be positive. Now she thinks they were right. She made friends and said the experience of being an outsider helped her appreciate deeper qualities in people.

Weissbourd said some schools are trying to help. One school in Houston was able to dramatically reduce mobility by asking school social workers to help resolve landlord-tenant disputes. A magnet school for mobile students was established in Seattle, so that if the parents moved to a different part of the city, the children wouldn't have to adjust to a new school.

Schools can also pair new children with classmates, or create welcoming and parting rituals, Weissbourd said. "So many kids are leaving that people forget to say goodbye."

* Lynn Smith's column appears on Sundays. Readers may write to her at the Los Angeles Times, Life & Style, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053 or via e-mail at lynn.smith@latimes.com. Please include a telephone number.

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