Move abroad with children

Geneva family diaries: Understanding coping mechanisms of expat kids

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The way children cope with moving abroad can range from anger and tantrums to silence or tears – but it's important not to not mislabel these emotions, says coach Tammy Furey.

'Oh, they’ll be fine! Children are amazing aren’t they? They just soak up languages like a sponge'.

I have lost count of the amount of times I have heard this. Almost the same amount of times as the absurd question, 'Is she a good baby?'

I have heard it come out of my own mouth a few times, like a tape recording. I simply don’t want to get into the discussion about being an expat with a school-going child, especially with a stranger. So the 'sponge' comparison is uttered, which appears to make complete strangers smile, pat my child on the head and wander off – surely a good result?

The reality of our children moving to a new country and going to a local or international school is very different depending on the child. It may be fine. I have known children who just dive in and adapt astonishingly quickly. Which is marvellous. Jolly well done. Then there is every child in-between, who has their own world, their own coping mechanisms, their own speed and their own quirks. That’s what makes our children special: their unique natures.

I coached a mother whose son was processing the move to Switzerland with anger. His tantrums increased and behaviour included pummelling his mother in utter frustration. Anger is one of the tougher emotions to handle, as we often see it as 'unacceptable' and, to be frank, it makes us uncomfortable. Our instinct can be to shut it down – immediately.

There may be many reasons why the emotions are processed as anger. We don’t really need to know why, but we do need to get more comfortable with it.

Quite often it is a test: do you still love me when I am like this? If I push you away, will you still be here when everyone else I have known has gone away? Am I still acceptable?

At a young age, emotions can be the only form of communication. Consider it a conversation and stay in that conversation. Stay with your child, get down to their level and give eye contact (but not the look) and communicate love and understanding. Validate that you see the anger, without getting into the why. Give them the space to solve the problem themselves.

If they pummel you further, try to find another outlet, such as ripping paper or tumbling play, where the child stays in control and gets to let the anger out naturally.

My daughter adapted to kindergarten very well. What she didn’t react well to was the vacation. Suddenly her world had changed, yet again, and her new friends had gone away. She was dramatic! She was larger than life! She was very angry; bearing her teeth and hissing was a small clue. It took three solid days of giving her the safe place to enable her to return to balance and well-being. I was frazzled, but it was worth it.

Other children may do the opposite and become quiet. They may burst into tears at the smallest thing, or lose all confidence to do tasks they previously found easy.

Just like anger, this is not something to distract or cajole them out of. This is how they are feeling and how they are coping. The acknowledgement and acceptance of this, with love and support, will help your children to regain their balance sooner in their new surroundings abroad.

If you make something of their emotion, label an emotion wrong or put strategies in place to 'cheer them up', you are giving the message that it is an unacceptable expression of emotion. Rather, let them know that home and family are a safe, loving place, thus giving them the security to find their own solutions to their unique problems, in their own unique way.


Reprinted with permission from Geneva Family Diaries.

TammyTammy Furey is a coach, writer and blogger who lives in St Gallen, Switzerland with her husband and daughter while attempting (badly) to speak German. Read more advice and tips on her website Furey Coaching.

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