This time of the year many international families are busy organizing their next move. During transition we all experience a rollercoaster ride of emotions, no matter if we are the ones who stay or the ones who leave.
Saying goodbye is one of the hardest aspects of international life and many leavers dread the moment to tell their friends and often even their children, postponing it until it is too late to say proper goodbyes. This leaves everyone too little time to process the news and makes it feel like a sudden deprivation.
Saying goodbye is like grieving: it always means an end of a chapter of our life, sometimes the end of a friendship, and we realize that all we wanted to do with those who leave or that we leave behind, is not going to be possible in the way we thought.
Our children experience transition even more intensly. Even if many parents think that their children are “easy going” and ” fine”, many of them struggle and are afraid of telling their oh so busy parents how they really feel. The reason for this is because they see us busy and overwhelmed to get everything ready for the move, and we don’t usually take the time to sit down and support our children through this process the way they would need to. Children thrive in a well-ordered and predictable environment.
If this changes too sudden, they feel disoriented and deprived of the fundamental sense of security they need to become balanced and self-confident to face the new chapter in their life.This is why they need our support to become resilient and consequently manage to thrive in the new place.The following C’s are my adaptation from Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg’s “Seven C’s of Resilience” to the specific period of transition our children experience this time of the year.
Competence is the ability to know how situations are handled effectively and it can only be acquired through experience. – When children don’t get the chance to practice saying goodbye, they won’t become competent in doing so. Many parents keep their children from being directly involved during this period thinking that it would be hard for them to deal with it, not realizing that doing so they keep them from learning how to cope with it in a healthy way. Most of the time, parents do this because they find it difficult themselves and don’t know how to handle these stressful situations. Fact is, that those who don’t find proper closure, who don’t say healthy goodbyes will have a hard time, feel sad, need more support later on and they won’t be able to say “happy hellos” because unresolved grief will take its toll on them. Like with everything our children learn – from walking, talking etc. – also saying goodbye is something they can learn and become good at if we show them how to.
When we trust in our own abilities we gain confidence. The more secure we feel, the more confident we become and the more self-esteem we gain. No matter what we need to improve and learn, when we become more confident we’re more willing to try new things and we know that learning is associated with failure. Parents can help their children to find the areas in which they want to improve their skills, convey their confidence and prepare them on tackling challenging projects and to make informed decisions. – When saying goodbye, we can help our children find the way they like to spend the remaining weeks with their friends. The best way to find out is to allow them enough time to figure this out. And every child, every member of the family will need his or her own way to say goodbye.
We all need close relationships, connections to family, friends etc., a community, that give us a sense of security. This is one of the most difficult aspects when children grow up in several locations: their “village” changes and it can leave them with a sense of loneliness and disorientation. As parents we are responsible to create a safe harbor for them. When everything else changes, our children need to be reassured that their family will stay at their side no matter what. – Strong relationships are our comfort zone in which we retreat periodically so that we can get ready for new challenges. What our children need the most is to maintain some routines during transition that give them the feeling to be safe and protected. If everything around us changes we need someone to turn to for comfort and to connect with, otherwise we react with aggression or withdrawal. Both are signs that we cannot cope with the situation. – The best way to help our children is therefore to take extra time for them, to actively listen, and to take their fears and insecurities seriously. Often it helps to offer the children to pursue a beloved hobby in the new place, or to set up their room in the same way they were used to. At this point I like to add my 8th C to Ginsburg’s list:
During the whole transition it is important to keep communication going. The greatest uncertainties and misunderstandings occur because of unfortunate or lack of communication. If parents don’t inform their children on time about major changes, believing to do them a favor because they spare them hard time, they actually send them the message that they don’t acknowledge their feelings, and this will, sooner or later, lead to conflicts. Many children perceive this “not telling” as “lying”. Although it means to answer many questions over and over again and embarking on a real rollercoaster ride of emotions, talking and sharing our thoughts, doubts and acknowledging each others’ fears and joys is essential to process the different transition phases in a healthy way. Children know by intuition when we try to hide something from them and the right time to tell them about it is always when they ask.
Character strength plays also a major role when it comes to resilience. It is not about being a know-it-all or an egoist. It is all about providing clear values. Our children need a basic sense of right and wrong to make wise decisions, so when it comes to transition, it is helpful for them to know that we have a way to say goodbye in the first place, that we won’t just leave in silence, and also that it will be painful but we’ll all in this together and that there will be “light at the end of the tunnel”. – If you are used to throw a party, do so. If you prefer meeting friends one by one, or opt for any other form that helps you find closure, try to do so by involving your children and by allowing them to find their very personal way.
Children who know that for their parents the world is a better place only because they are in it, understand that everyone naturally contributes to other people’s welfare. They will learn gratitude and experience how good it feels to help others. An important skill to learn along these lines is to ask for help and not be ashamed for asking. Watching their parents asking for help and accepting it will help them do the same, and helping will become more natural for them too. – Especially during transition, families need more help than usual and asking friends and our own children to step in will contribute to make them feel more appreciated, acknowledged, and make the whole transition smoother.
Children and adolescents who develop coping strategies will be able to handle stressful situations better and avoid dangerous solutions. It is very useful to provide good examples: the way we, adults, deal with stress will reflect on our children. This doesn’t mean that we need to be always in control – we’re all humans after all – but it means that our children need to see that no matter what, we can cope.
When young people are given the opportunity to take their own decisions and to assume responsibility for their actions, they will also learn that these come with natural consequences. Many parents take all the important decisions alone and their children become passive receivers and usually react with passive and pessimistic behavior, which sometimes can lead to depression. When childrens’ control is taken away from them, they perceive themselves as victims of the situation and will usually not take any action.Involving children in the decision-making process makes them understand that we value their opinion and contribution, and we stay connected. By including them during the different stages of transition, we give them the opportunity to grow in confidence, competence and character, and we help them to become more balanced and a support to the whole family. In the end, we’re all in the same boat together and we parents or caregivers can help everyone involved to find a task to fulfill so that we all can have a good start in the next chapter of our life.
Kenneth Ginsburg, Building Resilience in Children and Teens: Giving Kids Roots and Wings, American Academy of Pediatrics, 2014 (3rd edition).
Ute is a lifelong expat and a professional Consultant and Trainer for Internationals, mainly accompanying partners, and their families. Her expertise lies in verbal and non-verbal communication, bilingualism and intercultural communication (i.e. the interaction between people from different cultures). She regularly organises workshops and trainings about International Life, International Childhood (Third Culture Kids), Resilience, Bilingualism and understanding the local culture.