Whether it’s the first time moving to a new country, or you’re an experienced international family, change is still a challenge. We look at some of the ways you can help your children cope with the transition.
Get the Kids Involved
For many children, by the time they learn about the proposed move, it’s already a fait accompli. Of course you can’t put important decisions about careers and finances in the hands of young children, but the more your kids feel in control of the process, the happier they will be about it.
If you’re planning an exploratory trip, go as a family, so that the kids feel like they have a say in the next chapter of their lives. As much as possible involve them in discussions about which neighborhood you’re going to live in, and your new house or apartment.
They’ll want to choose which of their clothes, books, toys and games they take with them. Allow them to decorate and personalize their room – they may need to surround themselves with reminders of home at first.
Keep them informed
Children’s anxiety can stem from the fact that they don’t know much about their new home, and can’t imagine living there. (My own six-year-old was greatly reassured when we watched Youtube videos of Beijing, and he saw that there were roads, shops and parks just like home.) Be clear with them what’s going to change and what’s going to stay the same.
Encourage your children to start a scrapbook or decorate a wall with information about their new home. They can study maps, collect interesting facts, or maybe make some food from the local cuisine. The internet is an amazing resource – you may be able to take a virtual tour of their new school, or to walk around the neighborhood with Street View.
Most important of course is tackling the language barrier. Children generally learn new languages much more easily than adults, but any head start you can get will ease the shock of arriving. You don’t need to take a course: learning some simple phrases, making character flashcards or even just mastering the tones can be a big help.
Listen to their concerns
Children are all unique, and will respond to change differently. Some will embrace it enthusiastically, others will be frightened, unhappy or even angry. It’s important that you listen to them, and acknowledge that their feelings are valid and natural.
The age of your children will also affect their response. Broadly, the younger the child, the easier transition will be for them. Moving can be hardest for teenagers, whose friendships and relationships are of paramount importance to them. “You’ll make new friends” is true and helpful, but not if your teens think that you’re dismissing the significance of the friends they’re leaving behind.
Most important for children is reassurance that the family will still be together. Invest time in sharing and discussing your experiences, and in doing fun things together. Try to develop family rituals, like a pizza night or going out for ice cream. These can help children to form positive associations with their new home.
It’s good to talk about the positives, but it doesn’t help to ignore real issues. Moving countries can be stressful for adults too! Don’t burden your kids with your problems, but if you try to hide your feelings, children will pick up on them anyway, and wonder what else you’re hiding from them. It’s better to say, “Mom’s having a bad day too. Let’s get some popcorn and watch a movie to cheer ourselves up.”
Some children will need lots of reassurance, from the moment you tell them that you’re moving until you’ve settled in your new home. Expect to have ups and downs, and expect to explain all sorts of issues again and again.
Make sure you keep up the communication. Even if they’re settling well, children can still run into problems. Be particularly mindful of bullying, which can be difficult for children to talk about, but which needs to be tackled quickly, before it escalates.
If your children aren’t adjusting, or if they are particularly distressed, don’t hesitate to seek professional help. Your health provider or school counselor will be able to steer you in the right direction.
Keep in touch…
Children don’t need to lose all contact with their friends from back home. Email and video calling (Skype, Facetime etc.) make it easy for them to stay in touch. But don’t underestimate the value of an old-fashioned handwritten letter. This gives them the chance to put other things in the envelope: pictures they’ve drawn, photos, information about their school or interesting places they’ve been. This will mean a lot more to their friends than a quick “Hi” on social media.
If you do use video calling for them to speak to their friends, don’t be surprised if young kids, instead of talking about their new home and asking what their friends have been up to, just goof around. This is probably what they did when they played together!
… but make new friends!
Your kids should be clear that they’re not expected to forget about their friends. But it’s important that they make new ones.
This can be particularly challenging for children at international schools, where small class sizes and language barriers can drastically reduce their peer group. Out-of-school clubs (sports, drama, music etc) can broaden their social circles, keep them busy and reduce the scope for moping. Help their friendships develop by organizing play dates and inviting their new friends along on trips. You’ll probably find that the other parents are grateful and happy to return the favor!
In time you’ll find that, while important friendships will endure, long-distance communication will become less frequent, and your kids will be increasingly focus on their new lives. The first time they say “my friends”, and you realize they’re talking about their Beijing friends, will be a major step towards them feeling happy and at home.
Photo: Woodlywonderworks (Flickr)
This article originally appeared on pages 46-47 of beijingkids Home and Relocation Guide 2016/17. Click here for your free online copy. To find out how you can obtain a hard copy, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.