This time of year my expat-centered Facebook feed is filled with questions from parents asking about how best to meet the needs of kids during transition. These queries usually center on questions like how to entertain small ones on long-haul flights, what camps are best for kids hanging out temporarily in their home country between international moves, and what gifts to give friends so that everyone stays well-remembered.
These tools are important. I imagine they’re the practical way we, as parents, make sense of what is likely a difficult time for us too. If we have our ducks in a row, perhaps we’re less likely to feel the sting of transition. If we’re lucky and organized enough, maybe we can help minimize the sting for our kids as well.
Unfortunately, this sometimes means we overlook the most important opportunities we can offer our kids during transition. Twelve uninterrupted hours of entertainment at 35,000 feet may be nice, a few dozen autographs in a photo-album provide a beautiful memory, but these aren’t the keys to successful transition. They’re bonuses. Where we can most support our children through transition is in providing opportunities for personal growth, skill-building and life lessons – the things we take with us no matter where or how far we go.
Often, hiding in plain sight, are some important ways to meet our children where they’re at...regardless of where their most recent flight has taken them.
Here are 5 of my favorite reminders.
1. Create a place for conversations.
There are so many routines we build up around place. My kids know that the best time to come talk through something with me is when I’m cooking dinner or tucking them in at night. These are our special times. They know where to find me and that space serves a purpose. When you’re moving, these spaces and routines are suddenly lost. It’s important to keep this in mind – the intimate, personal and comforting spaces that once may have served as a sort of counselor’s office, may now be missing. Don’t forget to actively seek out these new spaces even when you’re in hotels or sleeping in guest beds.
2. Offer your children the vocabulary they need to express their emotions.
There are hundreds of words to describe our emotions, but most of us stick to just a handful. Help your child by teaching them to openly discuss and label their emotions and by reminding them that emotions are neither good nor bad – they simply are. Our emotions hold information that helps us navigate the situations we face. Learning to label what we’re feeling can help us unpack and address what’s there. You can help your children see their emotions more clearly by helping them describe the physical sensations of those emotions and by calmly and thoughtfully reflecting back what you see in them when their emotions shift.
3. Support your child in implementing a stillness practice.
Our minds and bodies benefit from having the opportunity to be fully engaged in one task. A task that we enjoy and can do naturally without too much effort or thinking is a great way to still the mind. A stillness practice does not have to be literally still (although it can be). It might include things like – going for a walk, shooting baskets, hitting a tennis ball against a wall, drawing or coloring, listening to music, yoga, cooking, baking, or playing an instrument. Remind your child why this is important and support them in finding a space and time to engage in this practice.
4. Help your child recognize the ways in which they’ve grown and changed since arriving in their current home.
A child who arrived in one country at the age of four is not the same child that will leave at age nine. As parents, this is so obvious to us, but it can be difficult for children to understand this reality. From our vantage point as grown-ups, we can aim to cultivate conversations that help them make sense of this. Doing so can enable them to recognize who they are within the passage of time (“I was in kindergarten and had short hair, now I’m in grade 4 and wear my hair long.”) and also to see who they are within their transitions from place to place as third culture kids (“I used to be afraid of speaking Japanese, now I know it’s okay to try it even when I make mistakes. I’ve become braver.”). Doing this adds depth and understanding to their personal timeline and helps build a sense of self.
5. Actively participate in helping them build their stress management toolbox.
As parents we often assume that it’s our job to create a space where our children feel calm and stress free. During transition, however, we may have limited control over the situation so helping our children learn about their own stress management tools is even more important. Actively discussing the things your child finds stressful, reassuring them that everyone has stress points and helping them cultivate and explore the skills that best help them handle stress is a great way to teach children about the importance of developing coping skills for their unique personalities and challenges.
(Sneaking in a bonus #6) Do YOUR work!
This is perhaps the most important tool. You cannot help your child through a transition if you’re not also addressing the above topics for yourself. Look through the list above and spend some time reflecting on how you handle these issues. Doing so serves a dual-purpose in that you’re expanding on your own ability to handle transition and also modeling behaviors you’d like your child to learn. If you find you’re struggling to implement these practices, talk things through with a friend, write in a journal or get professional help from a therapist or coach.
If you’re ready to try some specific activities that directly support implementing the above topics – check out Kids on the Move: 25 Activities to Help Kids Connect, Reflect and Thrive Around the World co-authored by Jodi Harris and Leah Evans or, for adults, The Expat Activity Book: 20 Personal Development Exercises for Gaining Insight and Maximizing Your Potential Wherever You Are by Jodi Harris.
Jodi Harris is a mother of three, wife of a US diplomat, certified coach (ACC), trained clinical social worker, Personal Leadership® facilitator, mindfulness teacher, and writer. She has over 15 years experience working with individuals outside of their home cultures and offers one-on-one coaching, group coaching, and training and facilitation through her company World Tree Coaching, LLC.