Lucille Abendanon

Signs that your child is having difficulty adjusting to life abroad

27 August 2018

Lucille Abendanon

Written by Lucille Abendanon

In our series of articles about expat life, we’ve asked Lucille Abendanon, a freelance writer, 15-year expat and mother of three children to help us articulate the unique challenges of being an expat parent.

In this article, we discuss some of the common signs that could indicate your child is having difficulty adjusting to  their life abroad. We also provide some expert tips to help your child cope.

When you make the decision to move abroad, your first thought may be ‘what effect will this move have on my kids?’ Living abroad can be a wonderful experience for your children. They’ll be exposed to different cultures and languages, they’ll broaden their worldview, become more culturally sensitive and empathetic and learn to be resilient in the face of change.

However, there is an adjustment phase, and all children need to be guided and supported through this, either by their parents, or in cases where the child is not settling, a professional.

Moving to a new country is an exciting yet stressful time. There’s so much to organise, so much to do and never enough time. During these times it’s important to remember that you’re not the only one going through a transition. Your children are too, and they may process change very differently to you, or be too young to verbalise their feelings. It’s therefore important that you pay close attention to any new behaviour or patterns appearing, as it may be a sign of transition stress.

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Younger kids

Tory Almond, founder of The English Connection NL, has spent years as a counsellor helping young people who were transitioning abroad. He says, “While younger kids adjust easier than older kids and their parents, relocating is still an adjustment.” According to Tory, behaviour to look out for in younger children (below 8 years) includes:

Drastic mood changes
“Kids have a hard time expressing themselves and become frustrated, resulting in drastic mood changes when they become frustrated,” says Tory. Look out for uncharacteristic bad moods, or if it becomes harder to elicit a smile from your little one. It can be difficult to identify the cause of frustration in a young child as it may just as likely be because they are hungry or tired. But try to dig deeper and understand why your child exhibits moody behaviour. For example, does your child melt down or become uncharacteristically quiet right before school, or in situations where they may be required to do something new?

Hitting and biting
Tory explains that “kids often use these methods to express anger and frustration when they can't express their feelings in words, this can mean they are struggling with something and can't express it.” Again, try to get to the bottom of such behaviour and do not pass it off as ‘just the age’. Young children feel the enormity of change as much as adults.

Sleeping issues
“Kids’ brains are processing a lot of new information, especially at the beginning of a move,” says Tory, “this can mess with normal sleeping patterns.” Lucille’s five-year-old son usually sleeps soundly in his own bed, “so if he starts coming to our bed in the middle of the night, I know something’s up,” she says. Co-sleeping, bed-wetting, sleep walking and sleep apnoea are all signs that your child is stressed and needs extra cuddles and support.

Abnormal attachment to parents
“A relocating child's world just changed dramatically,” says Tory. “In a desire for familiarity they may exhibit excessive attachment to one or both parents.” You will notice your child suddenly becomes clingy, doesn’t want to be away from you, and perhaps starts to cry at school drop off. These are signs of stress, and should be met with understanding and sensitivity.

Tips to help younger kids cope

AXA’s Director of Psychological Services, Dr Mark Winwood, says: “Younger children respond well to routine and ‘sameness’, so in a sea of drastic change such as moving away from familiar surroundings try and make certain things a routine and attempt to stick to it. Children need time to process all of the new information that they are exposed to and appreciate daily routines and repetition or they may become stressed.

During times of change, a little extra attention will go a long way in helping children deal with stress. Plan time each week where your child has your undivided attention. Let them choose the play activity you engage in.”

  1. Give as much advance warning as possible that a move is going to happen

  2. Keep as much the same as possible

  3. Answer all the questions even if they are repeated several times

  4. Expect that some regression may happen – a child who was toilet trained may revert back to an earlier stage – strive for patience

  5. Be accepting of grieving – your child may go through stages of grieving behaviour as they try to navigate a new country, house, school, teachers, friends.

  6. Listen to the concerns, show you understand and try and focus on positives.

Tips to help older kids and teenagers adjust

According to Tory, “older kids and teenagers, being more attached to their previous culture, will have a more difficult time relocating. They still have the ability to adapt quicker than their parents to their new environment, but may be held back more by a strong connection to their old culture through social media.”

Some behaviour to keep an eye out for with older kids and teens include:

A lot of time on social media

“Teens love social media, but if a massive amount of time is spent looking at the lives of friends from their previous homes it can lead to depression, frustration, and anger as they see events they are missing out on and are familiar with.” The urge to maintain old bonds is strong but don’t let your child or teen disconnect from the exciting new world around them. They need to engage in reality, not just on Instagram and other social networks.

Continuous talk about "home" culture

Tory says, “It's OK to process the differences between the cultures, but constantly bringing up the ‘home’ culture can be dangerous, especially if negative comments about the current home are brought up regularly.” As your child renegotiates their identity to incorporate their new life abroad, there are bound to be comparisons between countries, and this will only intensify the more you move. What you want to look out for however, are negative judgements about a current country that inhibit your child’s curiosity and natural desire to get stuck into life.

Anger, bitterness, and separation

“Teens are moody, but excessive anger and bitterness can build up as a child is processing their new home and dealing with the differences,” warns Tory. “If a child begins to pull away and separate themselves from family and friends they can be in need of help.” This is a tricky trait to identify, especially with teenagers, who by nature are solitary beings. If your child or teen removes him or herself from most family gatherings, be it dinner or movie night, probe the behaviour more deeply. It could be a form of detachment brought on by the transition.

Inability to find community

“Community is important to feeling settled and belonging somewhere, if a child or teen refuses to get involved in a community at school, sports, church, etc this can lead to extreme loneliness and issues adjusting to the new culture.” Encourage your child to become involved in the things he or she enjoyed when living in your home country. Sport is universal and a great way to build a community.

Making friends at school can sometimes be challenging, (although expat kids are more accepting of new faces, having been new themselves numerous times), but sport and church communities are a great way to build your social circle. As with adults, making friends is vital and your child will find deeper happiness once their social network is up and running.

Increase in coping mechanisms

People find ways of coping with new situations. This may manifest in a variety of ways. Tory says, “look out for nail biting, cutting, excessive eating, gaming, playing with hair.” These are all coping mechanisms and could indicate that your child is having a hard time adjusting.

Tips to help older kids adjust

“By fostering a responsive, rather than reactive approach to coping with changes associated with a major move, teens and young adults can learn how to achieve clarity while navigating the inevitable obstacles of life. Helping your child build resilience may really help manage this transition” says Dr Mark Winwood.

We can build resilience by:

Acknowledging emotions

Tell your child the first step in managing emotions associated with any type of life change is simply to give themselves permission to experience the emotion so it can run its course. The reality of entering a new chapter of life can be profoundly daunting. Change can bring out feelings of anger, rejection, and abandonment. Encourage your older child or teen to share their feelings through talking about them, blogging on social media for teens, encouraging supportive friendships at home and in the new environment, or even talking to a professional to help process the full range of difficult emotions. Acknowledge this is a challenging time for the whole family and you are all there to support each other. It is normal to miss friends and familiar things – be open to discussing the challenges.

Focusing on values and strengths

Remind your child it’s okay not to have all the answers to every question, or to know how every detail will play out, or what the future holds in the new environment.. Remembering what’s important— family, friends, education, health—is a powerful shield against whatever negative emotions threaten to arise. Consider with them what’s important to them and what they value, and help them to keep this life-change in the right context.

Reflecting on success

Reflect with your child on a time when they faced a significant change and successfully managed it, despite experiencing some initial fear. “Do you recall how terrified you were to start senior school?” Sometimes unfamiliar events are not as scary as they seem initially and may simply require a little time to adjust.

Shifting perspective

We create our own realities in the way we process our thoughts and emotions. Point out to your child that changes are part of the human experience and are opportunities for growth. Rather than be consumed with what was lost, consider potential gains. How can this new situation be a benefit? Is this an opportunity to re-invent themselves? Help them learn to make the best of new situations. They may eventually view the life change as beneficial to their personal growth and life story.

Focusing on wellbeing

Maintaining our health is essential at all times but when we are undergoing significant challenge, such as a move to a different culture we need energy to navigate the inevitable ‘ups and downs’. Make sure your older child or teen gets enough exercise (team sports with others is great way to develop friendships and support), eats well (food choice can be limited in a new country plan in advance), keeps well hydrated (the new environment may be much hotter or colder – adjust hydration accordingly) and gets sufficient sleep.

Lucille Abendanon – personal & family profile/professional work

In our series of articles about expat life, we’ve asked Lucille Abendanon, a freelance writer, 15-year expat and mother of three children (all born in different countries) to help us articulate the unique challenges of being an expat parent. Lucille is a British expat currently living in the Netherlands, and has previously lived in Vietnam, Thailand, Turkey and South Africa. Professionally, Lucille is a copywriter who focusses on travel and property. She runs the website Expitterpattica.com, posting on the blog on a range of expat topics, including expat parenting and children’s issues. Via this blog, she has guest posted on HuffPo, Global Living and a number of expat blogs and other sites.