Raising Resilient Children Abroad: Successfully Adapting to Change

(Written by Milan Polák over at Canadian Medical Care, this article offers great advice on a tough situation many foreigners have to deal with. Enjoy!)

Moving abroad is often a cause of anxiety. Such a move requires an adjustment that depends on one’s resilience and age. A different environment, language, and culture are some of the changes one must get used to. Although it may be exciting at first, complications and crises can occur and adapt one’s behavior accordingly may be needed.

Prior to departure: Before leaving, build realistic expectations with your children. Photos, books, and videos can be of help. The younger the child, the more important this is. Older children have more inner resources to face change and to adjust easier. Addressing any concerns your children may have is an important part of preparing for your new life.

Some parents feel guilty for moving with their children abroad, yet most are grateful for having done so in the long run. Familiar items such as the child’s favorite toys, books, music or movies will aid the transition. Continuing sports or hobbies is equally important. Giving children a chance to control their personal space may compensate for a lack of control of their overall situation. Families should not abandon their traditions and rituals, which ensure continuity and serve as something familiar for children to look forward to.

Change is life: In general, children are good at adapting (to language in particular). As their cognition and social skills improve, their ability to adapt also improves. However, a successful transition to a new life depends on each individual person and what is easy for one child may be difficult for another. Age also plays a key role. The youngest children may be surprisingly unaffected by their family’s move as long as their caregivers are present. Preschool-age children may have a harder time but generally adjust well.

Parents play an important role here as well, this time by providing a source of emotional stability and helping their children to process the change by talking about it. Generally, parents’ calm and positive attitude will be a source of security to children of any age. We have already mentioned that school-age children benefit from quickly developing social and cognitive skills that help in adjusting to new situations. However, moving will be much more difficult for teenagers, as they are going through a period of emotional instability. Many of them perceive the move as a loss, leaving behind friends, other relationships, favorite places, and activities. Parents need to help their teens to regain a sense of normality. Opportunities to meet other (perhaps expat) peers are of paramount importance.

Possible complications: Adaptation can be stressful. If the burden is heavy, children may find themselves exhausted, which is quickly manifested through greater susceptibility to illness. Sometimes, children suffer from the regression, where they return to pass forms of behavior. Problems that the child has already overcome may resurface. However, this tends to be temporary and unconscious in nature. It is essential to recognize such behavior as a cry for help and the parent should reassure the child and offer support when needed. Behavioral problems may also surface. These may take many forms.

For example, a child may become more or less active than usual, or eat too little or too much.  However, most problems are emotional in nature, often represented by fear of something real or unreal. Symptoms of depression such as sadness, lack of energy, mood swings and low self-esteem in older children can also appear. Again, the family plays a key role in supporting the child and eliminating stress.

Successful adaptation: No matter how prepared you are, moving to a new country will be a challenge.  Because the parents’ outlook will influence their children, it would be good to limit expressing frustration. Instead, openness and a sense of humor in approaching challenges is the best path to success. The children will follow, eventually becoming open-minded and positive in their overall attitudes as well.


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