Expat kids tend to develop a global outlook argues Jane Evans, author and expert on childhood anxiety issues, and often become adept at assimilating new cultures and at making new friends.
However, the expatriate lifestyle has challenges too, and in terms of our children’s friends – many are experiencing a friendship pattern that those of us who grew up with firmly planted roots might struggle to understand.
Saying goodbye is an inherent part of being an expatriate – and goodbyes are hard enough for adults who can rationalise the upset, but for our kids it is a different story. Expat children end up being the arriver, the leaver or the stayer and while there are quite a few articles and books on supporting children through arriving and leaving, what happens to the ones left behind?
How do we support those kids who wave their friends goodbye at the end of each school year, and welcome (and have to adapt to) new friends each and every September? The children whose lives remain the same, but different? How do we support their unique challenges – challenges that have perhaps less immediate and dramatic impact but potentially longer term effects?
WhichSchoolAdvisor.com talked to Jane Evans, a well-known childhood stress and anxiety expert from the UK and asked her what advice she might have for parents of the ‘stayers’.
Jane, what are the signs that your child is suffering upset or anxiety as the result of saying goodbye to a good friend?
If your child has recently experienced this kind of loss or disconnection, I would recommend that first you spend some genuine authentic time with them (and by that, I don’t mean being present but occupied with something else!). You need to be really emotionally there with them to sense and understand what is going on. You don’t have to probe them with questions, just let them know they have your attention and let them lead the way.
Emotional signs of stress and anxiety manifest in many ways in children – you might first notice that your child is just simply quieter, more withdrawn. On the other hand they might be more anxious and panicky about normal daily life – everyday challenges reaching catastrophe level a lot more! Their behaviour can be irritable – they might be very short and rude with you or their siblings.
When it comes to physical signs, again there are many we can be alert for - including food habits changing; be that they are eating a lot or not eating at all. Your child might experience a big bought of some physical illness – a really bad cold or stomach problems. What we are parents need to remember is that children are highly sensitive and attuned to what is going on, something which we often fail to understand.
I’d remind parents of children who have been through this a few times – don’t develop a ‘script’ to ‘jolly’ your child along through their feelings. It’s easy to misunderstand how deeply attached they were to this particular friend – if you just roll out the same phrases and advice each time, then you are not really emotionally or energetically connecting with your child. Try also to work on your own anxieties around their sadness (what parent doesn’t hate to see their child sad!). Children pick up on our anxiety and it is important that we try not to give them that to carry as well.
Should we be concerned if our child appears to brush off their friends leaving? What if they don’t seem to feel sad, or that they become accustomed to saying goodbye?
We need to make sure our children know that it is natural and normal to feel sad, or even angry about this – they don’t have to hide it or shrug it off. Their underlying feeling might be ‘why do I have to live in this place where I just get to know somebody and they go again?’
We need to support our children so they don’t become disconnected from their feelings – that is not a good thing.
As adults we can easily get into the place of ‘they are used to this’ and ‘we talked about it’! It’s really easy to get into that space, it’s a kind of protection for us, the adults. Remember, the focus must be on your child. We shouldn’t try and label children’s feelings as ‘good, bad or indifferent’ – what they are feeling just IS. As parents we need to hear it, understand it and be there for them.
Do expat children miss out not having their extended families around them?
I think the optimum way for a child to grow up is to be surrounded by four caring and emotionally available adults (that said, this is now quite unusual in the 21st century). In reality, if they have even one adult who they can have that real depth of relationship with them - well, that gives them a good template for how to have positive attachments with their friends. So yes of course, it’s great if they have access to uncles and aunties and a big extended family, because it gives them more adults who worship the ground that they walk on – we really like that!
How important are teenage friendships compared with attachments to family?
When we reach the teenage years, it’s normal for teenagers to gravitate more towards friendships; that is part of growing up. What the adults in their lives need to remember is that this is a time when our children need stronger relationships with us than ever before. It can be really hard to create and sustain that relationship as an adult, because often you get grumpy responses and attitude! We shouldn’t think ‘they don’t need me any more now’, quite the opposite is true.
For very young and pre-verbal children – the ones who can’t explain why they are unhappy! Do they experience the same sense of loss when a friend leaves?
Young children will still feel a sense of physical and emotional loss, of course! If your child is around somebody regularly and has a sense of enjoyment from them, plus that peace and ease that comes with friendships – well, if that person inexplicably goes out of your child’s life, that strong sense of connection and comfort is also gone.
You might see your child become withdrawn, taking less joy from things they typically love. Very young children should be full of fun, and full of dramatic highs and lows - that is normal. If this normal behaviour changes, again we need to be emotionally attuned to our child. There can also be physical presentations of anxiety: sleep problems, health issues – all because of this sense of disconnection and loss.
If your preverbal child seems sad, it can be helpful for we as adults to give them some language for their feelings – using phrases like ‘you seem sad today’ or ‘I feel like you might have some tears inside you today’. If you provide them with the language – it helps to clarify and really respect what may be going on within.
Many expat children have an extra adult in their lives – a live in domestic helper or nanny. How can we support our child when a much loved nanny moves on?
In this instance, if we are really honest as parents, our child’s sadness can be quite triggering for us – do we really want our child to give all that love to someone else? Children need to be able to show their parents that they really miss the person who is gone, we shouldn’t jolly them along through it with blithe comments or spoiling them treats to distract them. Really, that is being quite intellectual about the issue – we need to allow them to have their feelings and emotions.
At the end of the day, if you have a good, attuned relationship with your children – then parents are the answer to all these losses and challenges. It all comes back to how emotionally available the parents are. With an emotionally available parent children learn that they can feel sad, they can have these difficult feelings. When that relationship with important adults is difficult, that is when the resilience can flounder.
Resilience is absolutely key here, and resilience is not something you put into or teach your child. It is something that children learn to access through their relationships to close adults.
What are your top tips for supporting the ‘stayers’?
- Make sure that you allocate dedicated extra emotional time to your child – not time on your phone!
- Don’t pressurise or make a big song and dance about it all, just be close to them doing the ordinary things you always do and allow for those conversational contact points to come about naturally
- Remember that for some children anxiety can appear months after the event! They can appear fine, and then suddenly they will reveal their concerns
- Offer your child tools to help them understand – try and find a book, a story or a film that tells similar stories. Stories can really open up the conversation
- Talk about the people who have gone! Children can’t make sense of loss very easily – often as adults, because it makes us sad to see our children sad – we don’t talk about their loss. We want to rush them through it – but that is because it help us! Our focus needs to be the child, always
Which School Advisor was talking to Jane Evans. Find out more about Jane at www.thejaneevans.com.