Transition is the only constant in life. Ever since we are born we have to deal with changes that somehow shape our personality. Nowadays, moving overseas is commonly found and encouraged by cross-cultural trainers, families and employers. The Global Expatriates Forecast for the Worldwide Market Report stated that there are roughly 58 million expats worldwide and according to an article by Ute Limacher one expat moves abroad every 44 seconds. Consequently, living cross-culturally is a phenomenon that is continuously establishing new rules for families who need to overcome the challenges of transition to successfully integrate to a new place.
But how to assist our children during transition when we are also dealing with the obstacles of moving abroad?
There are many resources that we can consult to find the right answers and I do really encourage you to reach out to people who has gone through the same process to have a better grasp of what happens when the security blanket of our homeland is removed. Keep in mind though, that every person, every family is different and that the way others handle emotions may differ from the way we manage our feelings during transition.
Personally, every big move has been different for us. We have walked the path of transition and its stages in a very distinct way… I guess age, job conditions, destination country, and language have influenced our positions towards expat life and its challenges. Nonetheless, we have experienced sadness, frustration, euphoria, diversity awareness, and pride. Like a huge wave that comes inadvertently, these emotions came and went, living my kids, my husband and I a little bit shaken but also stronger and happier.
So to help you better understand transition when moving overseas, I have divided this period of change into four distinct stages as follows: The Honeymoon (usually harmonious), the Critical Fall, the Recovery, and the Adaptation (finding balance and sense of belonging). Be aware, many of us don’t go through all of these phases during a big move; others experience the four stages in a different order, jumping from the honeymoon to the adaptation with no apparent trauma.
Like I said before, every human being is a small universe and two situations are never identical. However, these stages will allow you to develop awareness of the process and its many challenges, and this can be very benefitial for you and your family.
The Honeymoon Stage
We just arrived and feel so happy about it! Everything is new and exciting. We are in “exploring-mode”, walking down the streets of our new home, breathing the fresh air and tasting new flavors. Oh my! How fun! The place may look like heaven on earth and we are dealing with a rush of joy that makes us see everything perfect… La vie est belle.
How to connect with our children during this phase?
Start by creating new routines while keeping old ones as well, don’t forget that in the middle of so much change stability is always welcome. If we are able to connect the frugality of the initial excitement with the permanence of a pattern, our children will be able to still enjoy the new place and new traditions when the euphoria of the first days has disappeared. Visiting a new restaurant is always fun, but what about agreeing to eat lunch in this place every Sunday? Your kids will look forward to the recently discovered dining experience and will begin a routine that can be easily associated with the destination country.
In addition, keep the communication bridges strong. Your children need a safe place where to express their emotions, a safe harbor where to come when sadness pays a visit. These connections should be established before the big move and must be nurtured every stage of the way.
The Critical Fall Stage
Many factors impact the way we see our destination country. Usually after the first euphoric times comes the melancholy, the remembrance of the hometown. Those luscious gardens don’t look that beautiful anymore. The old church bell doesn’t sound as inviting as the first weeks… Winter has arrived and made everything gray and somber. We already had the first bad encounters with the local language and we are desperate to master every single aspect of our lives. Parents and children are sad immersed in comparison that brings no good.
What to do to help our kids overcome this phase?
Optimistic attitude anyone? It is our responsibility to take care ourselves, to promote our very own positive thinking in order to support our children during the sadness stage. This is the moment to take advantage of those communication bridges built before and talk to your kids about emotions. Try to connect with them through your own feelings… please let them know that it is absolutely normal to feel unhappy and disappointed.
Remember the new routines established during the first stage? Well, now is the time to visit the already discovered places but with a different lens. Encourage your children to focus on specific aspects of places, traditions and people. Invite them to go beyond the superficial… Use the patterns to create connections with the locals, this will help your family to feel part of the community. It is commonly known that losing the sense of belonging deepens the melancholy when moving overseas. Feeling that we belong can make us feel a lot better about ourselves and the host country.
The Recovery Stage
There you are smiling again!!! And there are your children smiling as well. This phase opens a new chapter for the family. We have accepted and embraced the reasons for moving abroad, we have acknowledged the need to integrate to the community, and we have started to create connections with the local life. The sun is shining again and our newly discovered places, aromas and taste are growing roots in our hearts.
How to be our children’s best companions in this phase?
This is the time to promote diversity awareness, motivate your children to take part in extra curriculum activities and bring new friends home. Encourage your children to write about their experience overseas and send letters or emails to relatives and friends abroad. The important part is to help our kids appreaciate the new traditions while still treasuring our own culture. Please keep in mind that comparing our home country to the host place doesn’t do any good. Instead, allow yourself and your family to fall in love with your new home. Our hearts are big enough to love many lands worldwide.
This is also the time to re-evaluate strategies: do we need extra tutoring for the target language? Is it possible to work less hours on Fridays so we can have a picnic with the kids in the park? Anything that strengthens our relationship as a family should be taken into consideration. Pay close attention to milestones achieved by this phase. Pay compliments to your spouse and children for their good attitude and bravery. Living abroad isn’t for the faint of heart.
The Adaptation Stage
David C. Pollock called this phase the Entering Stage. Others refer to it as the “adjustment period”. To me this is the phase of acceptance, we accept the fact that we are where we need to be and that it is the time to become part of the new community. It is also the period of ambivalence. One day we feel like fish in the water and some other day we just blabber the local language without successful communication.
How do we support adaptation of our kids as well?
Having a mentor is always a good idea. We need someone who can show us how to function effectively in this new world. Also, we need to encourage our kiddos to observe people and traditions to learn by watching and doing. If there isn’t a person available to accompany us during this stage, then by all means be your own mentor! Be the mentor of your kids, too! When we moved to Fulda we had a colleague of my husband’s new job who helped us with things such as opening a bank account, electricity and internet contracts, etc. However, we were the ones in charge of making contact with the local people, learning the recycling process (Germans love to recycle) and enrolling in school and tennis lessons. It was daunting but we did it and we felt very proud of it.
This is the time to review emotions. The transition period is about grief and mourning. Talk with your children about their feelings regarding losses. Help them to identify hidden sadness. It is important to heal emotionally to better adjust to our local community. As parents, we must provide our children with the tools necessary to express their emotions. Visit your local library or contact a cross-cultural specialist for ideas and techniques; the resources are endless.
In conclusion, remember that each person has a unique way to behave during transition. Your kids are no exception. However, it is possible through these stages to pinpoint specific problems to find the best possible solutions. I invite you to discover your own system for processing emotions so you can better understand what your children are going through. Transitions requieres teamwork. Prepare yourself to work with your best teammates: your kids!