Children of expats might eventually face the pain of having to leave their old friends in school as they have to leave for another country. Certainly, there’s the excitement of a brave new world, and a whole new culture and nation to explore. However, there’s also no denying the anxiety and stress of exiting one’s comfort zone, and the very real friendships that they have developed.
Not every child will respond differently to such changes. It depends on a variety of factors, including age, use of social media, and even whether a child is an introvert or an extrovert.
What’s important first and foremost is that breaking the news to a child about a big change must be done straight-to-the-point, without a roundabout white lie or a misrepresentation of the move.
Not only are children far more perceptive than we give them credit for, but if they accept the lie and find out later on what it really meant, you could cause serious trust issues. The best thing for children is for them to be provided the opportunity to prepare, and say goodbye to their friends.
At this point, almost every child will fall into one of three archetypes – the leaver, arriver, or stayer. Leavers and arrivers are characterized as those who leave with both a tear and a smile, ready to face new challenges, and those who arrive who are excited to make new friends and learn about this brand new place.
Leavers and arrivers are often accommodated by school programs who welcome them with open arms. But stayers, on the other hand, who remain attached to their past lives and relationships, unwilling to move on, are rarely paid proper attention to.
Pioneering third culture experts David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken write in Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds that the transition of a Third Culture kid from one country to another takes place across five stages. Awareness of these stages is essential for parents and teachers to help children cope.
In the first stage, involvement, third culture kids are rooted in a place with a sense of community, and build and nurture relationships with people around them. This is where life can be considered to be “normal.”
As a third culture kid becomes aware that they’ll be leaving a country, they start mentally preparing themselves, slowly moving away from relationships and detaching themselves from what they’re responsible for. When asked during this stage, third culture kids often deny that they’re feeling bad about the whole situation.
The actual transition is one marked by disorder. New schedules and routines are established as the third culture kid leaves their old country and enters the new one. They find themselves in an unfamiliar world where people already know each other and how to act. This may lead to low self-esteem, withdrawal, sometimes even a cycle of depression.
Over time, the third culture kid starts to settle down and integrate into the community they’ve joined, as they become aware of the practices and decide to become part of their new world.
As a child entered a state of involvement just like they began with, they start feeling at ease, with a strong sense of security and that feeling of being in a place where they belong.
Clearly, the leaving and transition stages are where a third culture kid needs the most support, and it’s important to recognise them wherever they appear!
It’s important to acknowledge their feelings as real. Children may attempt to suppress their feelings about their impending move, and it’s important that they be provided with an open environment that tells them, “It’s okay to feel angry or sad.” This is especially important for younger children in particular, who may find themselves confused and unable to cope with how they feel.
Books and movies can be excellent tools in helping them cope. A lot of stories involve the hardships of moving on, and can help them come to terms with things. And it also illustrates that other kids have been through this same thing before, and come out better!
Teenagers may or may not have more mature responses to such a move, but they’ll also be better-equipped, especially thanks to social media, allowing them to stay in touch with their friends. Encouraging them to maintain contact may help greatly in the move ahead.
More than anything else, though, expat parents should be their children’s anchor. They will be the only constant in a life that is destined to be full of change. Expats should have strong, open relationships with their children, seeking to be understanding and accommodating. They must always make time for their child if they want to open up, and be ready to listen at any time.
Swiss International School Dubai wants to be a second home for your children. We’ll do whatever it takes to accommodate their needs and ensure that their transition into our halls is as smooth as possible. Of course, that means leavers and arrivers are going to have a swell time, but our incoming stayers as well will be given the best of care. If you and your child need help in adjusting, you shouldn’t hesitate to come to our inclusion counselors or boarding school staff. We’re always glad to help a new arrival.