Change! We love it. We hate it. We find it scary. We find it adventurous. All that and more. If we as adults have even a smidgeon of some of these feelings around change and are challenged by them, how do we judge where our children’s thoughts and emotions fall?
For me – I am extremely apprehensive about change. I am all too familiar with the challenging thoughts I have as an adult about changes in my life, including changing where I live, a new job, moving to a new city, occupying a new house (sometimes they smell sooo different!) But…… for some reason, I keep launching out into yet another change, another place to go, and another adventure. Why is this? Well those more qualified than me might know the answer.
Strategies to help expat children manage anxiety
What I do know though is that our children have many of these feelings. They have muddled and confusing emotions around change. We accept this, but as adults we feel we must intervene. Intervening is not necessarily the answer, but ‘paving the way’ may be the solution. These tips may help:
Accept that your child’s emotions around moving to a new school or country are real. Recognize these feelings and concerns but don’t dwell on them. Asking your child how they feel is confusing. They often don’t have the vocabulary to describe thoughts and emotions. So, just unconditionally accept what they ‘may’ be feeling. Let them ask questions and give your best answer but as I previously said don’t dwell on it.
Prepare for your new city and country. If they are old enough include your children in researching your new environment, dwelling on the fun and interesting changes ahead. Talk about getting bikes to explore the countryside. Talk about going camping in their new environment, or swimming, or boating, or skiing.
Be prepared yourself. Chaos doesn’t help your child think this move is all a good idea. Take care to have as much calm as you can around arranging practical aspects of your move. Such things as documentation, arranging movers, getting rid of possessions, (most of all getting rid of the children’s unnecessary stuff) can be challenging. If you start early on all these practical details it will help. Be realistic that there will be some untoward upsets such as hiccups with visas or new pay scales etc. etc. Try hard not to discuss these issues around the children. They will most certainly have their antennae up and pick up on your annoyance or anxiety.
Carefully arrange appropriate farewell parties for both the adults and separately for the children. They may have friends at school who have not previously visited your house, but are good friends. It is important for those children to be part of the farewell. Don’t have these farewells in the last week. This is a time for (perceived!) calmness. Have farewells in advance.
Arriving in your new environment:
If at all possible arrive a week or so before school starts so that the children can: visit the school and meet someone with a friendly face, buy the bikes that you spent time talking about, explore the neighborhood, and let the children help set up their bedrooms.
If you can’t arrive this early try for as many of these ‘settling in’ projects as possible:
Be there for your child. We all say “children are resilient” This is an over worn phrase. Children are not always resilient and we shouldn’t necessarily expect them to not need us when the going gets tough. Tell them that you understand that it’s really hard, and outline a new adventure you are having in the next few days, as a possible diversion. We are the adults so we need to find something positive and exciting about the whole deal.
Specifically ask the teacher if your child can have a buddy. This is very important. Also if you sense after a day or so that your child is not suited to their buddy or the buddy is starting to ‘ditch’ your child, then very gently discuss this with the teacher. Children need a person who will show them everything they need to know, to be friends with them and to answer their questions.
As time moves on be aware of different cultures at the school. I experienced a child who had been brought up to demonstrate his ‘individualness’. He had come from an environment where children were encouraged to make their own decisions and long hair was totally OK. In his new country and at his new school short hair was the custom for all males. He struggled with this as the other 6 year old boys insisted he was a girl. The parents discussed this as a family and a few days into the year they had a family celebration the evening that he decided to get his hair cut. We may not agree with this but lets help our children jump the hurdles in their new environment. After all, it is our decision to move to a new culture, new food, new schools, and new experiences.
Be positive about your whole experience. When you strike early on ‘hiccups’, hang in there and be positive. I talked with a parent who had ventured to a new country. Neither the parent or her child could speak a word of French, and not one child at the school, or the teachers could speak English. Mother and son shared their misery! After 2 days at school the 7 year old was about to refuse school and the parent was about to take him and return to her home country. On the third day the child found ’fun’ From that moment on, 2 french words became 4, 4 became 8, 8 became 16 and by the end of the year he was judged to be the best French speaking child in the class. Mother and son had both had a marvelous experience.
Keep calm with one hurdle at a time as you and your family make the transition.
Margaret Dick is an ex-expat from NZ and has worked as an Educational Psychologist for 20 years, 7 of which were as an expat working in international schools in the Saudi Arabia and Qatar. She has an MEd. along with a PGDipEdPsych.