By Yana Ricart
There is one constant in expat children’s lives: Movement. Whether it is relocating to a new country, moving houses within the country they live in or coming back from long holidays (“home leave”), expat children are frequently experiencing some kind of change in their lives.
These movements and changes produce contradictory feelings. The loss of familiar situations and the excitement of new adventures coexist during these periods of change. Both children and adults need time to process and make sense of these feelings.
At school, children eventually adjust and make new friends. Since they attend international schools, their close friends also go through many of these changes as well. All of a sudden, their close friends leave the country or neighbourhood, and their daily routine is changed again. They experience movement even when their own family is not going through it.
At home, when the whole family goes through such a period, each person processes the stress in their own individual way. Depending on age and personality, children might display different behaviours (eg. acting out, withdrawing), although the root cause is the same: trying to cope with the stress of moving. Adding all up, it comes as no surprise that levels of stress for the family as a group escalate during these times.
Tips to deal with children’s psychological wellbeing during any kind of Move:
- Pay attention to your own levels of stress. By paying attention to how you are coping with your own stress, you can demonstrate healthy ways of dealing with stress (eg. taking time to relax or have fun together) and become a role model for other family members. You can also be more emotionally present for the children when they need you, or you can explain to them why you might not be as available at certain moments.
- Create Familiarity. As soon as you arrive (anywhere), strive to create some sense of routine either through nutrition or activities scheduled throughout the day. You can bring a toy or something they like to the room where they are staying (eg. depending on age, it can be a book, phone). Familiarity helps to create feelings of safety. As they feel safer, children can cope better and start to venture out.
- Listen to Children’s Concerns. It is very important to listen to what is worrying or concerning the children during this process. When they feel heard and validated, they can process their feelings easier and they can start taking steps to go out and interact with their new surroundings. While you listen, you can also normalize the situation by explaining that these feelings are natural, using examples and books appropriate for each age.
- Help them start tracing their own resilience stories. Even little children remember things that they’ve done well in the recent past, if you help them recall these situations. Focusing on those moments and how they managed to do well, will connect the children to a memory of success. From those memories, when they engage in other types of activities (eg. sports, arts) in their new environment that display their strengths, you can help your children start tracing and experiencing their own resilience stories.
- Be patient and allow adjustment to unfold. During this transition period, be patient. Depending on the child and their own particular situation, adjustment can happen quickly in some areas and not so quickly in others. In the meantime, notice positive behaviour and praise children for their efforts. It will help in the adjustment process, teach children positive interaction and also make it more enjoyable for all in the family.
Putting it all together: Balance-on-the-Move.
When kids learn to ride a bicycle, they stumble, they fall, and they get back on the bicycle. Slowly they learn to balance and to realize that their centre of gravity moves with them as they ride their bicycle up and down different paths.
Maintaining psychological wellbeing during movement and transition requires a similar search for balance. As we try to understand what stresses and concerns us, we try to create feelings of safety. At the same time we remember our strengths and resilience, and how we have succeeded to adjust to new surroundings in the past. We practice patience and we finally realize that our centre moves with us as we move along a new path.
We learn to balance and we can help our kids discover their own balance-on-the-move!
Written by: Yana Ricart Psychotherapist SACAC Counselling