Helping younger children to maintain well-being in an overseas move
Quite often we talk about young children being resilient to change and having the ability to bounce back. There are countless examples throughout history of children living in difficult conditions and going on to become successful, happy and well-balanced adults… So it’s easy to assume that a ‘simple’ life-changing decision, such as moving overseas, won’t affect little ones in the same way as it might impact on older children and adults.
Resilience vs fear of the unknown
To some extent this is true. Under the age of seven, their minds are still in the formative stages and they can assimilate new experiences with greater ease than anyone older. But there is still much to be said for handling the change in the right way to facilitate their understanding and cooperation. Leaving them out of the decision-making process, failing to recognise their concerns and neglecting to talk to them about the change will damage their ability to demonstrate resilience as the fear of the unknown takes over.
Handled in the wrong way, global mobility is known to be a risk to educational outcomes and psychological well-being. But handled properly, the opposite is true and mobile children can take advantage of a wealth of cultural learning opportunities that enhance their potential and can go on to become successful, resilient, happy adults with a unique ability to embrace and optimise change.
Handling change in the right way
It’s all very well saying that we need to handle change in the right way – but what does that look like? How do we know whether we’re doing the right thing or not?
Thankfully, it’s not as difficult as it sounds. For a child over the age of two and under the age of seven, parents/carers are still their safety net. They may be starting to develop their own ideas and opinions, but these are still heavily influenced by the adults around them and therefore we – the adults – can guide, support and ultimately lead successful outcomes.
We’re all guilty of communicating with younger children in a series of directives – “put your shoes on”; “eat your breakfast”; “put away your toys”… There’s nothing wrong with this of course, directives have their place and without them we’d certainly never get anything done. However, there’s also a place for active listening and for allowing your child the time and space to formulate and express their own thoughts. Active listening requires feedback; listen to what your child is saying and repeat core points back to show that you have listened and understood. Welcome challenging feelings and questions and work together to act on any concerns or to find the answers to things you don’t immediately know – even when the questions are abstract or hard for an adult to understand.
Encourage decision making
When it comes to big decisions like travelling, or moving to a new house, children have no control – and often no say – in what happens or when it happens. Again, that’s OK because otherwise nothing would get done, but if a child is never given any control over decisions, they can grow up to feel angry and resentful, or come to accept that they are followers rather than leaders. The answer is simple – allow your child to have limited choices and control. If possible, and practical, perhaps choose two or three suitable schools and let them have the final say; allow them to choose the colour scheme for their new bedroom and give them a say in establishing new routines. Hand over some of the control and you’ll facilitate great skills later in life as well as making your child feel valued in the moving process.
For an adult, being in a new house in a new country may feel like an entirely foreign experience and there may be nothing familiar about the transition at all. In this instance, it is simpler for kids. For children it’s much easier to maintain a sense of well-being by keeping some things the same and maintaining the illusion of continuity. The same bedtime routine, same food choices, same clothes, same routine at meal times and same furniture will all add to a sense of being safe and well. So plan ahead and make as many familiar things as possible available in your new home.
Support wider relationships
Saying goodbye is a difficult but necessary part of the transition to a new home. As an adult we may feel inclined to avoid this process, because it hurts – but for a child saying goodbye is a great way to facilitate understanding and make the move real. At the same time, pick core people (grandparents, cousins or good friends) with whom to make plans for keeping in touch, so your child understands they will see them (Skype) and talk to them soon. Your child is about to undergo a huge change and an important part of that is the development of their story – and every good story needs an audience so make sure your child has people to tell about all the exciting things he or she is about to discover.
Consider individual personalities
Regardless of their age, no two children are alike and this needs to be take into consideration when you make your plans.
Some children will need more communication and reflection, but less decision making (decisions may feel like too much pressure); some children are natural leaders and will need to be given a sense of control over their own fate; others still are introverts and may need more time to process their feelings and form their questions. You know your child better than anyone else so tailor your plans to suit their needs, however big or small, and you can’t go far wrong.
Just as no two children are the same, no two experiences are the same either. You can lead your child and influence their feelings by mirroring the desired enthusiasm and excitement – but you can’t make them feel the same as you do.
Building resilience effectively is about embracing differences, learning individual tolerances and catering for individual personalities. You are giving your child a wonderful experience that will open up a whole new world – literally as well as figuratively – but for them to see the potential you have to manage their expectations, nurture their well-being and allow them the time and space to explore their feelings, thoughts and emotions.