When you move to a new country with your family, this is what you most probably hear from the people around:
“Kids can easily adapt! Don`t worry!”
I also believe in the creative strategies of the kids around challenges and their super-powers to deal with novelty. But, when we look at our own adult lives, we can identify all kinds of misconnections from childhood that keep on influencing our present. We usually spot on them in therapy sessions, personal development courses, or moments of reflection. Therefore, changing our home, language, community, and country without a solid bridge between the two worlds can also create misconnections or disconnections in future life.
Yes, looking at the surface what we can see it`s instant play, kids communicating without words or mingling in physical games with others, or… not really. What we can`t easily see is their grief, their inner struggle to let go of what they called “home” and “community”, redefine their important relationships, and finally make space for the new place in their hearts, the new country.
I remember my boy being really upset and affected by the moment I changed the bed in his room (it was his bed, our bed, and the extension of his body during the night since he was a baby). It took him a while to let that bed go, plus some therapeutic games, and rituals, to feel safe and contained in the new one.
While now, everything is changed living as an ex-pat in a new country. One day he told me: “l like this new house, but it`s weird when I look at some objects and I don`t feel we have a history together.” Fair enough, I couldn`t recreate the same environment from the past, and what parent can do this? But the expression “to have a history together” caught my attention. We all need to have enough familiarity to receive the novelty, otherwise, our neuro-system gets overwhelmed.
When kids are little, they define themselves through what`s constant there, in their surroundings: family, house, nursery. As they grow older, they expand it to activities, neighborhoods, friends, and school. And then, towards adolescence, they start defining themselves through trends, qualities, and personality traits. Their self-image mainly goes from external (concrete) to internal (symbolic).
When all these external elements are changed and the only stable one is the family, they might become anxious and clingy or agitated and aggressive. And we call this the “adaptation period”. But, what if instead of waiting for them to adapt by focusing on the new place, we turn back to the old one and recreate some connections with it?
Here are 5 ideas for parents and children to start building bridges between the two worlds:
1. Together with your child, develop a map of their old life with all the significant elements: important people, activities, places, and objects. You can`t take everything with you, but you can take their symbols.
If it`s about relationships – What was the most representative thing for that relationship? Pictures, games, rituals…
If it`s about a place – Take a stone, a piece of wood, or some sand with you.
Help them become aware of what each element might represent and invite them to arrange them in the new space.
2. Actively redefine relationships. Face time with the family members from your home country it`s a great opportunity to keep the connection, but not all kids are comfortable with it, or not for all kids this is enough. Be creative and expand it to regular and specific activities with those dear people:
Grandpa can draw pictures for the kids.
Grandma can read stories in the evening.
Friends can play with Legos together with the camera on.
Teachers can send emails about their ex-colleagues.
3. When you talk about what`s ahead, don`t bring just the positive side, because kids have also tons of worries. Make together a list (or a drawing, depending on the age) with hopes and worries regarding the new life. You don`t have to immediately calm down their worries; just listen to them and share yours. See if you can influence their mood by simply listening and creating space for their whole experience. Then, ask your children to think about some of their inner resources discovered in the past (in their home country) that could support these worries.
4. Create continuity. Their strength lies in their skills. If back home they used to practice a sport, an artistic activity, etc., create a link with a club/school way before or as soon as possible you move, so they continue to feel good at something beyond the context. Who wouldn`t like to feel competent anyway? Ask their ex-teacher to write a letter to describe the kid and his/her progress so you can offer it to the new teacher. This is how you can transfer the trust and the attachment from one teacher to another and the child can feel safe.
5. Build bridges between the two worlds. The old world is full of memories, while the new one is empty, making it scary. Prepare two panels (or simply sheets of paper) and ask your children to draw their two worlds: one related to their home country (memories, things/ places that they enjoyed…), and the other one can remain empty, or add some events. During the first year, kids can add elements to the new world and when there is something similar to the old world (having a group of friends or practicing the same sport), they can draw bridges between the two of them
In the end, kids will adapt anyway, but thriving and growing require also solid roots that can be built thread by thread.