How to Make a Transition Abroad Easier on the Kids

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Students prepare to take an exam in Russia. Zuma Press
For some families with school-aged children who move abroad, the children can have a harder time adjusting than the parents. Expat spoke with Rebecca Grappo, an international educational consultant, about how to make the transition overseas smoother for children and teens.

What is the biggest challenge that so called third-culture kids (TCK) face?
Transition. With transition comes loss of friends, teachers, community figures, perhaps household staff and “adopted” extended family members. Once a TCK arrives in a new location they then have to readjust to a new life that includes a new school, new friends, new activities, etc. Some kids are pretty good at starting over, but many are not. I feel strongly that it’s important to not minimize just how challenging this can be.

How important is it for them to connect to others with common interests?
For most kids, the biggest worry is whether or not they will find new friends. The most well-adjusted TCKs are those with portable interests and activities they enjoy doing, such as a sport, drama, music, art, scouting, community service, etc. This allows them to find and connect with peers in their new community. It’s important for kids to feel like they connect and belong to a social group, so finding others with similar interests helps to facilitate this process.

What are the signs that a child may not be adapting to his or her new environment?
Withdrawal from friends and activities they used to enjoy, mood swings, sadness that won’t lift, increased anxiety, school refusal, signs of self-harm, overdependence on videogames and the Internet to find a substitute for social interaction, and even substance use. Kids who don’t have a healthy sense of self or find it difficult to connect to peers might start to associate with peers who are not the most discerning about who gets to “belong” to the group. But loneliness is a huge concern and has a major influence on how well students adapt.

How does being a member of the “tribe” or “like-minded” group impact a child’s development?
Kids need to feel like they are wanted and needed, and to feel like they belong to a social group. Nobody likes to feel like they are invisible. They desperately need to connect with peers in order to get that sense of recognition and belonging, and it is vitally important for healthy identity development.

What happens when a child doesn’t fit in?
I often see kids who struggle to connect with peers and make friends. We might see an increase in symptoms of depression and anxiety, or withdrawal from others and self-imposed isolation. I also have seen kids gravitate towards unhealthy relationships in an effort to find a sense of connection and belonging. For the kids who do not easily make friends, or misreads social cues, moving can be a very disruptive and difficult time in their lives.

What are the best coping mechanisms parents can impart to their children when living the expat life?
The most successful and resilient kids are the ones with a strong sense of identity who find a way to plug into their new communities and school. Everyone is going to have a few bad days, though, so the other recommendation that I have is for both parents and kids to be able to express their emotions in a healthy and constructive way.

For many, this means learning how to name their emotions, be heard and understood, validated, and then encouragement can follow. Because I also work with many TCKs who might be in therapeutic settings, it’s usually a matter of working with the entire family on emotional growth and the ability to find the positive in challenging situations. Lastly, I think that it’s important that parents take the time to be with their children and invest in strong relationships so that everyone in the family system can be supportive in times of stress and challenge.

How do you create a sense of “home” when living overseas? How important is that?
To me “home” is that ultimate place of safety, love, support and acceptance, and is built on quality family relationships. Spending time together, listening to one another, comforting and encouraging one another all foster that sense of family. Having at least a few objects that are always traveling with the family help, too.

I remember when my own family moved from country to country, I always had a special vase that came with us and I made sure to fill it with fresh flowers as soon as I could. That was one symbol of home for us. Photos of family and friends, paintings, toys, special stuffed animals and other treasures are also important. It’s important to have some portable family or cultural traditions that help to build that sense of family identity and create the feeling of home.