Ask the Experts is a regular feature offering you advice from experts in the field of child mental health and wellbeing. Here, Vanessa Hellewell, Counsellor and Accredited Social Worker at the International Counselling & Psychology Centre, answers key questions on how to support your child with the move to a new country.
If the move is in the middle of a school year, children may find it more challenging to make friends or find groups they are comfortable with. There may be changes in the curriculum (a local school or a different international curriculum), which may make it difficult for children to adjust.
There may be struggles fitting in due to cultural and social differences, and children may miss their life, friends and family back home, especially older children.
Teenagers are often the most reluctant group, as their identity is often wrapped with social relationships and recreational activities, so allow them time to grieve this loss and change. Encourage them to stay in touch with their friends, but also encourage them to seek places in the new country to explore their hobbies and take it as a time of exploration.
Moving for most school-aged children can be the most difficult due to the impact of losing friendships. A best friend for a few months can feel like forever for a child. It is common to experience resistance but try to have them look at the positive outcomes, and plan how they will stay in touch with friends (especially now when it is so much easier to stay in touch in real time).
For pre-schoolers, they may not have a practical concept of what a move involves. Try to talk about what is happening in simple terms, look for the positives, and help them to keep their routines as much as possible in the new place.
For toddlers, just stay engaged and playful. They need to know they are still in a secure safe space, even if the physical space is changing. Keep explanations simple; pack their bedroom last and unpack it first; and try to keep their same routines.
Moving can be an extremely rewarding experience for a family and offers opportunities to explore and learn, as well as being a daunting experience for both parents and child as they say goodbye to friends and family.
The benefits can include:
As the family goes through the experience together, the limited external support, tends to bring the family closer together as they rely on each other on support. It’s important to continue to remain open and, while it can be a stressful time, stay available to your children (even if they are giving you a hard time about the move).
Talk about fears and anxieties (parents should keep the anxiety sharing age appropriate and to a minimum though), and plan how the family will learn about the culture together, or how they can experience it together.
If you are moving to a new country, research the new location. This can include looking for books and movies, and making a travel wish list; let your child help so they can get excited about new adventures or places they would like to visit. Google Maps is a great way to do this. Also, if there is a new culture or language, the whole family scan tart to learn about the culture, people and some phrases which are used.
Start trying to build up a social network (for example, if your child is really into soccer, is there a soccer club they can join), and connect with others who have made the move before you, and talk to them about their experiences.
Make significant memories during the last months in the last place with friends and family. Take photos of memorable spots, beloved people, and activities; make plans to write/call from the new place, or arrange visits; make a goodbye video; and plan a farewell party.
In your new home, unpack the children’s (especially younger children) rooms first. It can be overwhelming, so if a child needs some alone time, give them alone time; if a child needs you a little bit more, give them a bit of that. Make a routine and stick to it if possible; regularity and structure is important to children, especially with all the other changes that are happening (e.g. meals as a family; afternoon activities).
If your child is used to going for walks to the neighbourhood shops after school, see if it is possible to do so in the area you have moved to as well. If the child has not been exposed to other cultures, food etc, do you want to explore different cultures each week or each month?
In their new school, get them ready with the new uniforms, books etc. Have a tour of the school grounds with your child, and try to meet with the teachers and classmates before starting if possible. Play with your child to model social skills, teaching them how to approach others, how to start a conversation and how to speak to peers.
As your child settles into school, set up a review meeting with their teacher to check on how your child is doing. Consider signing up for extra-curricular activities that your child might enjoy, and try to set up play dates.
Have the right attitude
Prepare well, and do it in advance
Find a way to stay in touch with friends and family
Routine! Routine! Routine!
Vanessa Hellewell, Counsellor and Accredited Social Worker at the International Counselling & Psychology Centre.With over 15 years of experience working with children and families, Vanessa’s work is focused on providing support and education relating to behavioural, emotional and psychological challenges through individual and group sessions. She holds an undergraduate degree in Bachelor of Science in Psychology (BSc), a graduate degree in Master of Counselling and Postgraduate Diploma in Social Work.
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