Moving can be hard for teens and affect their mental health. But there are ways to make it easier and help them adjust.
Change can be uncomfortable, especially for a teenager who’s moving and switching high school.
It’s natural to be resistant to change. People get comfortable with things that are familiar, and change often introduces a number of unknowns.
For teenagers, few things disrupt familiarity more than a move. They’re in a new location, in a new home, and around new people. Even the bedroom, which may have been a haven in the past, can feel unfamiliar.
All of these changes can affect a teen who may already be working through the day-to-day challenges of heading into adulthood. Moving a teenager in high school has its challenges, but there are steps to make it easier and help them adjust.
Moving can be both physically and mentally demanding.
For teenagers, both grief and anxiety can play strong roles, says Heidi McBain, a licensed marriage and family therapist from Flower Mound, Texas.
Teenagers may naturally feel grief over missing their friends, McBain says. That grief can coexist with anxiety about making new friends, particularly when they’re moving mid-year when social groups have already been established.
They may also experience anxiety around new classes and different grading structures.
There’s “anxiety around where to sit at lunch, who to sit with, walking into a crowded cafeteria and not know anyone, not wanting to eat alone,” she says
Cameron Murphey, a licensed marriage and family therapist from Oakland, California, says that moving teens in high school can set back social development by breaking existing relationships. It can contribute to a number of negative emotions.
“Changing schools can have a variety of mental health effects on teens, including depression, anxiety, doubt, and low self-esteem,” Murphey says.
In 2014, a large-scale study examined the mental health effects switching schools had on children in England.
The research showed children who switched schools more than three times were 60% more likely to show symptoms linked with psychosis at age 12, compared to children with fewer moves.
According to the study, children who switch schools could be more vulnerable to bullying.
The upside of moving
While a teenager switching high school may be faced with a number of stressors, it may not always be a negative experience, says Ronald Stolberg, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist in San Diego who specializes in working with teenagers and their families.
“We automatically think of the hardships and negative side of changing schools,” he says. “However, the impact of switching schools mid-year has just as many opportunities for it to create a positive impact on mental health as it does the potential to be disruptive.”
Stolberg says children and teens switching schools get the opportunity to start over and to shed negative reputations, if they’d experienced one.
You can’t always shoulder the burden for your teens, but there are ways you can help make a move easier on them.
Learn what to expect from their school day
Introducing them to their new school and social environment is important, McBain says.
“When my daughter started at a new middle school mid-year, the school had students from her classes show her around the first day,” she says. “And she also had a girl from her class before lunch bring her to lunch and introduce her to her friend lunch table.”
Learning about what they can expect from their school day — such as the bell schedule, the location of the cafeteria, and where socializing happens — can help your kid feel more at ease.
It may help to take your child to meet their teachers and other school officials before the first day of school.
“Arrange for your teen to meet their teachers and the school counselor before attending school,” Murphey advises. “This will help your teen familiarize themself with the school before attending on their first day.”
Enroll your teen in extracurricular activities
Murphey recommends having teens participate in sports, clubs, or other activities where they can socialize with peers that share a common interest.
Support old friendships
Moving away from people you care about can be difficult. To manage grief and social isolation, you can help teens keep in touch with previous friends.
“Support your teen in maintaining their friendships from their previous school,” Murphey suggests. “This will help your teen continue socializing while they take their time forming friendships at their new school.”
Stolberg suggests encouraging teens to invite new peers to events or activities.
“Invite people to do things and don’t expect to always be invited back,” he says. ”It might take a little time, but you will eventually find your new friend group.”
Follow social media accounts
Stolberg also recommends allowing teens to follow and participate in the social media accounts of new peers as a way to communicate and learn more about one another.
Each parent has their own rules about social media, and you may want to make a plan with your child about how they’ll use social platforms. If you have reservations about your kid using social media, you might consider monitoring their use as a means of allowing them to take part in the social aspects of it.
Encouraging teens to be welcoming may help with a move, says Stolberg, who suggests teens make a genuine effort to say “hi,” initiate conversations, and show interest in others. If your child is anxious about initiating conversations, it can help to talk with them about their fears and provide space for them to practice initiating conversation beforehand.
If you’re a parent or caregiver with concerns about your kid’s safety, you might consider going to meet the parents of a new friend or classmate in order to feel more comfortable about your teen going places with the new friend.
As a parent, it may be uncomfortable to allow your teen to go out with people you aren’t familiar with.
Stolberg suggests teens should accept invites out, even if it’s something they may not be interested in. Saying yes may help them get invited out again.
Find a peer support program
Data from a national parent poll shows teens may be more likely to open up about mental health if they have trusted peers to confide in.
If a peer program isn’t available, allowing teens to speak with a mental health professional can encourage them to discuss their concerns before they become overwhelming.
“Once you know you are going to move you need to be honest and upfront with your children,” Stolberg says. “They will figure it eventually, so ‘the truth can set you free’. Be honest, share what you know, and be supportive of their feelings no matter what they are.”
McBain advises to tell teens as early as possible to allow time to adjust. She also suggests reminding them there will be positives — not only negatives.
Listening to your teen’s concerns can help you identify what support they might need as your move gets underway.
It can help to make a transition plan with your teen. For example, you might find a way for them to say goodbye to their current home or school, such as having a goodbye party with their friends.
You might also point out things to look forward to in their new home or school, such as identifying fun activities they want to try, or clubs they can join.
Moving can be stressful no matter what age you are. For teenagers who are moving and switching high school, they’re suddenly faced with new peers, a new school, new teachers, and a new town.
It’s natural for a teenager to be upset when they learn they’ll be changing schools. As a parent, you can support and motivate your teen through this process.
Encouraging social engagement, finding school and peer support, and listening to your teen’s concerns are all ways you can help with this transition.
For teens who may need additional resources, mental health professionals are available — in school and out — to offer the next level of support.
If, at any time, you or your teen need someone to talk to about the stress of moving, a mental health representative is available 24/7 by calling the SAMHSA National Helpline at 800-662-4357.
If you’re looking for a therapist but aren’t sure where to start, Psych Central’s How to Find Mental Health Support resource can help.