Whether your family has moved abroad for the first time, or whether you are seasoned expats who have moved multiple times, children’s behaviour can change as a result of the upheaval.
Resilient, happy, adaptable, outgoing, open-minded optimistic, international in outlook. These are just some of the adjectives that we hope we can attribute to our kids when we uproot them and move abroad. We hope that the long-term benefits of showing them all the world has to offer will outweigh any short-term difficulties in settling into a new school, learning new languages and making new friends. However, as with everything related to our children, the ‘settling in’ process can be far from smooth and they all have their own ways of reacting, particularly across different age groups. Trying to support children when you are likely to be undergoing some similar ups and downs, supporting your spouse, starting a new job, moving house and country is no easy task. Despite this, parents’ desire to provide support for all of them at their various stages and help them make a positive adjustment to their new life is strong and understandable. Although children behave in their own unique ways, luckily there are some common behavioural traits that they are likely to exhibit, and that other parents before you have also noticed. Being able to interpret these signs can help you support your children through the move, know what to expect, and better understand what they are experiencing.
Many parents see their children handling saying hello to new experiences better than saying goodbye to their old life. Pre-schoolers tend to identify “home” wherever their parents are so may notice the effects of relocation less. Children between five and ten can develop strong but flexible attachments to friends and schools, meaning that if they are prepared adequately for the move, they can adapt quite quickly to making new friends and their new environment. For older children and teenagers, their largest anxieties are usually connected to leaving behind their friends, and a fear of missing out socially. This means that how you handle the first stage of the move itself is quite significant. For children of all ages, it is important to soften the idea that they must leave behind everything they know and begin anew. That is not to say that you should set false expectations about how quickly they might move back to their ‘home country’, but it is possible to relieve some of the upheaval in a number of practical ways. Before they leave, make sure they have dates to spend time with their best friends, and think about having a leaving party, organising a picnic, go-karting session, football match or other event to mark the move as something special in their lives. Talk with them about the social side of things, and explain that they are not losing friends, but how lucky they are to be gaining more all over the world. If possible, make sure they have a date in the diary when they will be able to see their friends again, so the goodbye is less final.
To a lesser extent the idea that they are leaving familiar surroundings and possessions can also be unnerving. It is relatively easy to let them have a hand in certain areas of the moving process to give them a sense that they are also in control. What do they want to bring? Which of their original belongings do they want in their new bedroom? Make moving day into an exciting prospect, with special food and a sense of teamwork, perhaps with other family and friends coming over to lend a hand, and give the children responsibilities for specific parts of the day. Packing up and bringing along some of their favourite things is part of connecting them to the familiar parts of their old life.
If all goes well in the first stage of moving, children are likely to be carried along by the initial excitement of everything being new, exploring their new environment, and life feeling a bit like an extended holiday. In the second phase after the first few months, children may experience a dip in enthusiasm and motivation, when the reality sets in that they are here permanently, or at least for the near future. This can manifest itself in changes of behaviour such as little acts of naughtiness and defiance, withdrawing socially, not wanting to go to school, saying they miss their friends, or ‘want to go home’. Firstly dealing with the issue of timescales can help children process the new reality. If they see an unending expanse of future time in front of them when they will be away from the life they knew before, it can be daunting for them and they may feel like giving up. Readjusting their focus away from this undefined amount of time can be achieved by setting near-term goals and events, for example, a trip back to their ‘home country’, a holiday to a new place perhaps bringing along their best friend from home, or a visit from a family member. By combining things that link your old environment with your new one, they will hopefully stop trying to get their head around the past and future so much. Give them aims, goals, fun trips and short-term achievements to work towards.
Natives of two cultures
Some parents notice that they feel that despite the amazing educational, developmental, social benefits of moving your children abroad and integrating into a new culture, they wrestle with also wanting their children to grow up with a connection to their own nationality and heritage. Many parents say that it is an adjustment to them personally to understand that their children essentially need to become natives of two cultures – absorbing everything the new culture has to offer at the same time as keeping the ‘previous’ one alive. For some families this may be a case of children being brought up hearing and speaking different languages inside and outside the home. For others it may be the food they are brought up on, the religion they practice, the games they play or how they are expected to dress. While this may be the case, the most positive reaction is to discuss openly all of these differences, teach children to embrace the best ones of each culture. As well as highlighting the contrasts between cultures, this can also be used to demonstrate to children the things that bring human beings of different cultures together, rather than divide us.
Communicating with children throughout the move can help them settle in and feel more comfortable. Although setting a positive, no-nonsense tone, making things fun and exciting is important, show respect for their emotions. If children feel they are listened to, that they understand that it is perfectly acceptable to feel unsettled and anxious sometimes, it can help them to see that with every adventure there is some element of nervousness. Helping them to ‘see the flip-side’ of their fears can help draw out the positive perspective in the situation. Teenage children usually need a great deal more empathy, but may be more difficult as they are not feeling in a position to ask for it, as they are going through so many changes themselves. In many cases it is normal for this to manifest itself in acts of rebellion and mood swings. Try not to stress too much if their grades are suffering, instead think about what other extra-curricular benefits they can get from an upbringing in a foreign country that a conventional education would not deliver and focus on those. These can be interpreted as signals that they are finding things difficult, and may need extra support. If things get worse, speak to their school, as they will have seen many cases of children struggling to settle in.
Resilience in adversity
Although it is obviously necessary to make the move as comfortable as possible for children and acknowledge that sometimes it may be difficult, we often hear the importance of these big life changes as opportunities to nurture a certain level of resilience in them. Psychologists define resilience as the ability to bounce back from adversity and setbacks. Studies have shown that some of the major determinants in whether our children are resilient are biological factors such as their personality and the bond laid down with their parents in the early years, contributing to a sense of security and self-confidence. However, in studies looking at children who have seemingly begun their lives at a distinct disadvantage, or have suffered traumatic events as extreme as living through war, results have demonstrated that resilience can be developed and taught through certain external, ‘environmental’ factors. Of course moving countries is a lifetime away from the trauma brought on by a major humanitarian or natural crisis, and should be an extremely positive experience. Even so, psychologists suggest that it is possible to use the experiences of how children react to these extreme situations to point to why some develop resilience in adversity and others are prone to crumble.
One of the factors that child psychologists have found leads to resilience is a child’s level of self-belief in their own ability to solve problems they are faced with. If it seems to them that much of what happens to them is out of their control, they grow up to believe that the world depends on the decisions of others and a great deal of luck. While this may be true to a certain extent, children who understand the importance of how they carry themselves when a problem situation is thrust upon them are found to fare better in difficulties. Children who see their parents and other role models turning things around for themselves in a positive way are more likely to feel they can try sorting things out for themselves. Similarly, if they sense that the adults around them believe in their abilities, this can make an enormous difference in how they see themselves. The more times a child is encouraged to use their own initiative, intelligence, or physical skills to turn a situation around, the more they will be encouraged to believe in their ability to affect outcomes, and take a positive approach when they are facing a problem. In particular, when moving countries, many parents notice that their children may start to exhibit anxieties in questions and attitudes along the lines of ‘what’s the point in investing my efforts here if I feel like things are semi-permanent, or if the rug is going to be pulled from under my feet?’. Encouraging them to see that wherever you are in the world, you get out what you put in, even if external factors change, gives them a very positive message to carry through life and succeed in whatever they are doing.
Studies have shown that however self-confident a person is, they are rarely able to bounce back without a strong and stable network of people around them. These people rely on their personal support structures, the advice of their peers, superiors, and even the help of authorities at some points. They recognise that although they are in control of their own lives and actions, they need people to turn to at certain times. Moreover, they know how and when to ask for help to get them where they need to go. One of the of the major changes when you move abroad is that previously the support structure was already in place around you and your children, in the form of family, neighbours, friends, colleagues, school teachers, and babysitters, whereas now it is necessary to reconstruct it almost artificially. Previously, it was easy to meet people and friendships formed organically. Now, as many expats describe, everyone in the family needs to begin a sort of ‘friend dating’, until you form friendships with a number of like-minded people. Once this support system is in place, part of knowing how to make the most of it is to develop the appropriate empathy and communication skills to interact with people. How easily people can win the support and assistance of others is a key factor in being able to enlist the appropriate people at the appropriate time for support through rocky times.
Another of the major factors that helps children through difficult times is if they have a talent that they can focus on, whether sporty, creative, musical or intellectual. When you think of the skills needed to become proficient in dance, sport, music, or anything else, you can see why this can help build resilience. Often it can be a no easy task mastering a hobby, requiring constant improvement, the need to reflect on and improve weak spots, the ability to work towards targets, putting effort in now to receive gratification down the line, perhaps a degree of teamwork. All of these factors mean that children can learn to put themselves aside and work towards other things, with different timescales, and see the benefit in something that may not be immediately easy. Encouraging your child to find what they are good at and really enjoy also gives them an outlet for any frustration or anxiety they might be feeling and any constructive results, for example in competitions, will be immensely satisfying for them. In terms of helping them through the move, a level of distraction that these activities provide can work wonders.
Above all, parents find that approaching the move positively themselves can set the tone for the rest of the family. A mix of good communication, understanding and resilience will improve the kids’ (and your own!) chances of making a success of the move, and deal with the upheaval along the way. Nothing will be perfect, but this is part of the reason to relocate – to have a big adventure and get through it together.