By Shari Rosen, PhD and Karlijn Jacobs-de Hoon, M.Sc.
Parents in the midst of arranging for an international move are under a great deal of pressure. New jobs, homes and schools, plane tickets and arrangements for pets and lamps inevitably accumulate into a massive, months-long project. Even organized and caring parents under these circumstances can overlook some of the practical, common sense steps they can take to reassure their children in a trying moment.
Some children, confronted with the stresses of a massive life-change that they did not ask for, can react with a mixture of frustration and anxiety, which are easily mistaken for anger. Unchecked, these feelings exacerbate the already considerable challenges of a move, and can sour their remaining time in Shanghai. In this article, we intend to equip parents with the knowledge necessary to help their children through the big move with grace, positivity and courage.
An on-going conversation:
Children often perceive early on that something major is happening, sometimes even before any decision has been made. A sense of impending change, even after parents initiate a discussion of what is happening with something like “We are moving to Singapore because mom just got a promotion,” leaves children facing a number of open questions: “Does this mean I can’t see my friends anymore? Is year three in Singapore the same as it is in Shanghai? Do we have to leave Lightning behind?”
Addressing these questions head-on is an excellent starting point for a broad and positive conversation in preparation for a successful move. Treat it as a shared experience, a story that you are telling each other as you live through it. Share concerns of your own. Emphasize that you are together, and that part will never change. Offer children opportunities to make their own predictions about what will be hard about life in a new place, and especially about what will be nice about it.
Help children to identify things about their new home that they may find exciting. If they are fond of going the Zoo in Shanghai, pictures of a local zoo in your new home can become a valuable focal point that can help to transform Stockholm or Kuala Lumpur into a real place where they can have fun in much the same way as in Shanghai.
A sense of control:
As you frame the move in a context of optimism and family unity, it is also important to foster a sense of agency. Children who are participating in the process tend to have an easier time believing that a move away from Shanghai is not something being inflicted on them, and are free to occupy themselves with something to look forward to as well as what they will be leaving behind. Many parents find success by asking children for help in setting up their new rooms before the move. The IKEA racecar bed he will have in Chicago, or the picture she will hang over her dresser in Delhi can become a concrete symbol of the new, exciting life waiting across the water.
It is also important to avoid interfering with your family’s routines. Make the time to visit your favorite restaurant each Tuesday or to get to the Science & Technology Museum on Sunday. It strongly reinforces the notion that the important things are not changing, and offers children a chance to discuss their feelings in a safe, relaxed setting. Finally, try to manage your own stress level around your child. The more you can see to it that irritating phone calls coincide with play dates, the better for everybody.
Different children, different feelings:
How a child reacts to the prospect of moving to a new city depends on personality, age, the circumstances of the move, their feelings towards Shanghai and many other factors. There are, however, several basic ways of displaying anxiety that we see over and over, and these bear mentioning:
Displays of aggression, similar to anger
This may indicate that a child feels an acute lack of control over the process.
Clingy, infantile behavior
This suggests that a child is attempting to pretend it is not happening. Some encouragement may be necessary in order to confront the issue.
A Sudden drop in motivation
This is particularly prevalent among teenagers, who can sometimes find it harder to work towards their long-term futures when the short term is so uncertain.
Children acting ‘a little too excited’
Children who do not like this city often develop unrealistic expectations that everything will be perfect in the next one. In these cases, imparting an appropriate sense of continuity may entail adjusting expectations down in order to avoid a nasty shock later.
Assemble a story of continuity, and an intimidating process becomes comprehensible; bring children in on decisions that affect them, and anxieties become manageable. Children who understand how they feel, know that they are not alone and believe that they have very much to look forward to are prepared to cope admirably with traveling to a new home, making new friends and whatever else may come.
Shari Rosen, PhD
Company Founder, Speech-Language Pathologist
Before coming to Shanghai, Shari worked at the University of Washington. She co-founded The Essential Learning Group in 2006, and consults with major international schools and local organizations in China to help educators better understand the needs of each individual child.
Karlijn Jacobs-de Hoon, M.Sc.
Global Outreach Director
Karlijn was an independent practitioner in the Netherlands before coming to Shanghai in 2010. Her extensive knowledge of children’s development makes her a valuable resource to parents in determining how best to address their children’s learning needs.