x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Managing children's stress during a move

Whether you're moving down the road or to a whole new country, there are ways to make things less stressful for children.

One way to get children familiarised with the considerable change inherent in a move is to involve them in packing what’s precious to them.
One way to get children familiarised with the considerable change inherent in a move is to involve them in packing what’s precious to them.

When we moved recently, while I was concerned with things like storage space, parking and where we'd put the dining-room table, my three-year-old wanted to know two things: would we take all of her toys with us? And would her friends be able to find us?

Whether it's a move down the road, across the city, or to a new country, children need to have everything explained to them in detail.

"For a child, much of the stress associated with moving relates to dealing with the unknown. Given this, it's important that you talk to your children about the move. Share the details that you think they can understand. Encourage their questions and listen to what they have to say," says Dr Joseph Keegan, an American clinical psychologist.

Children under the age of six are often the easiest to take overseas. Two years ago Jennifer Rigby moved from England to Singapore. "As Dexter was only two years old at the time, we just hyped up all the good things - the fact that we were going on an aeroplane, there would be great weather and a swimming pool," Rigby says. "We didn't say too much about the friends and family we were leaving behind. Fortunately, Dexter adapted really quickly and now thinks of Singapore as home."

School-aged children tend to be more concerned about friendships, so it helps if you can find out about local clubs before you move so they know there will be opportunities to make new friends. When it comes to teenagers, it's not unusual to face some degree of rebellion. It's important to let your teenager know that you want to hear their concerns and that you respect them.

Saying a proper goodbye will help ease the transition process - ask your child if they'd like a farewell party or a sleepover. "I've worked with children who've moved away from a special friend without having the chance to say a proper goodbye and they're still mourning the loss years later," says Gaynor Sbuttoni, an educational psychologist who works with children moving abroad.

It's important to get the balance right between looking backwards and looking forwards. Talk about how the change in climate might affect your daily routine. If the country you are relocating to speaks a different language it's a good idea to teach your children a few words before you go. By doing so you will generate positive reactions from local people and give your child a sense of achievement in their new home.

Once you've made the move, it's time to help your children adapt to their new surroundings. "Communication is one of the most critical components to ensuring a smooth transition," says the child psychologist Kate Berger, who is based in the Netherlands. "The simple act of acknowledging and validating a child's struggle can go a long way towards helping an expatriate kid who feels lonely."

The transition can be eased by helping your child keep in touch with home. Set them up with an online account to chat with friends and direct them to online communities that offer peer-to-peer support, such as TCkid.com.

If you're a parent to small children it's a good idea to arrange play dates. Lara De Miranda, from Macedonia, is mum to Adrian, two, and has been living in Abu Dhabi for the past eight months. "I try to organise get-togethers for mums, mums-to-be and expat ladies so I can meet new people and provide an opportunity for our children to socialise," she says. De Miranda is in the process of adjusting to a new country and is considering going to Europe for the summer, to avoid Abu Dhabi's blistering heat. Websites such as abudhabimums.ae and www.expatwoman.com can help mums feel at home and provide a forum to discuss the challenges of living in a new country.

Even if you immerse yourself in an expat community, you will still be confronted by cultural differences on a daily basis. Sbuttoni suggests you talk about these differences with your children and acknowledge that it isn't always easy to know the best way to behave and that it can be hard for children to fit into a culture they don't yet understand.

Although a move can be stressful, most children adjust well in a short period of time. "Don't overlook some of the warning signs that may indicate a child is having difficulty adjusting," says Keegan. "If a child has difficulty sleeping, has outbursts of anger or avoids making new friends, it may be useful to seek the advice of a paediatrician."

When it comes to repatriation there can still be an element of culture shock, particularly for children who have been born overseas. The more time you spend discussing the move home with your children and mentally preparing them for the lifestyle changes, the better. "Children get used to things such as sunshine and staff, and it can be a shock when they get home," says Sbuttoni. "Tell your child that you know it will be hard but that you'll manage. Perhaps you can tackle the chores together and make it a fun experience. Try focusing on the positives of the move, such as being able to see grandparents regularly."

Sharon Blyth, from the UK, mum to twins Rosie and Zachary, eight, Amelia, five, and Hermione, two, spent six years in the US. "We visited the UK a few times before we moved back so our children were familiar with it and got to know some of our friends," says Blyth. "We built up the excitement and tried to hide the stresses of the move." Blyth recognised that saying goodbye is just as important on the way home as on the way out. "We made sure we had farewell parties and special play-dates," she says. Adjusting to a new school system can seem like a daunting prospect to parents as well as children, so Blyth decided to volunteer on the parent board so she could get to know the teachers and find out how the school worked.

Whether you've just moved, or are planning one, you might be concerned about the effect it will have on your children. Don't forget, though, that the experience of living abroad can be hugely beneficial to children. It can help them increase in confidence, become more adaptable and give them a greater ability to cope with change. "Children who have grown up in an expatriate environment often possess additional language and enhanced interpersonal communication skills," says Berger. With such special qualities, expat kids could be the kids of the future.