We lose a sense of belonging whether we move or when those that we care about move away. The places, people, and things which we have learned to associate with ‘home’ change. Life as we know it changes. We might feel homesick for the ways things used to be. We grieve the losses, visible and invisible. Therefore, change is often a catalyst for the cycle of grief.
As an international school teacher, parents regularly reach out to me about their upcoming move. Moving between international schools usually means switching between various school curricula and school cultures. Naturally, questions come up such as Will my child be able to keep up with the math? Are his spelling skills at the right level? Will she need to catch up on local history? Will the new school provide extra language lessons or learning support?
When I ask the parents how their child feels about the move, parents often reply along the lines of, “Well, they are struggling a bit with leaving their friends, but hopefully they will adapt easily.” There’ll be a brief pause and a beckoning look of confirmation, followed by: “They usually do, right?”
It’s only normal that while parents feel overwhelmed by the logistical and emotional aspects of the move, they find comfort in the common assumption that children are naturally resilient. They encourage themselves and their children of the benefits of moving and look at others to confirm. Indeed, there are countless advantages: exposure to different countries and cultures and school systems, a broader worldview, increased language skills, etc.
When it comes to the social aspect of finding new friends and integrating into the new school culture (finding a sense of belonging), adults rely on the resiliency of kids for all of that to fall into place.
Yet, there remains that question: They usually adapt, right?
The short is yes, they might visibly struggle a bit at first, but they usually adapt relatively easily and well. However, the longer answer is a bit more complicated. If the transitions are not addressed and managed well, children unfortunately and undoubtedly carry some unresolved grief into their adult life. And this unresolved grief may manifest itself sooner, or worse, later many years down the road.
What is it that makes it so difficult to say goodbye? Winnie the Pooh mentions to Piglet: “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.” And the French say partir, c’est mourir un peu (leaving is like dying a little bit). Even though moving and being exposed to new experiences bring numerous benefits, the very nature of leaving one place means we experience loss. The nature of these losses is tangible and intangible, visible and invisible.
We all go through life dealing with loss. However, a child that moves often will go through more losses during their formative years than most adults will go through in a lifetime. This is why it is so incredibly important to address in the moment as much as possible. Ruth Van Reken points out that children “experience this grief because of the very richness of their lives” (Pollock and Van Reken, 2009). Usually, children are well aware of the privileges of a global childhood, so they may feel ashamed and reluctant to express negative feelings about moving. When grief is ignored or pushed aside, unresolved grief or unresolved loss will remain.
Pollock and Van Reken further explain that unresolved grief reveals itself eventually. They added rebellion, vicarious grief, and delayed grief to the common stages of grieving (denial, anger, bargaining, sadness, withdrawal), before reaching acceptance. The delayed rebellion and grief are often because children need to follow the ‘rules’ for the sake of the families’ posting. As soon as they move into independence, they may finally find the ‘breathing space’ to rebel, discover their own identity, and therefore deal with the grief in their mid to late twenties.
Apart from built-up losses, research shows mobility has one of the most negative impacts on learning. In his book Safe Passage: How mobility affects people & what international schools should do about it, Doug Ota suggests that mobility across cultures is indeed a rich source of learning “when mobility’s massive challenges are managed well.” In order to learn well, children need to feel safe and have a sense of belonging. Early on in life, these needs are usually met by parents, but as children become older and go to school, this shifts to friends and other adults around them. When they move, the very people that fulfilled those needs may disappear from their lives. Before true learning can take place in a new school environment, a child needs to re-establish these feelings of safety and belonging again.
So, what can we do about it? What are three essential ways you can support your child during a move or transition?
Comfort rather than encourage
Rather than simply encouraging your children by saying that everything will be OK, comfort them by accepting and acknowledging that they will go through the stages of grief, and not necessarily in the most logical order. Knowing that these stages are common, helps children make sense of the rollercoaster of emotions they may experience when moving. Children need to learn to name these emotions and need to understand that it takes some work to manage them well in order to achieve a successful transition. By discussing benefits and challenges together and supplying your child with tools and strategies to manage the challenges, they will find themselves better prepared to deal with any transition.
Grateful farewells and meaningful hellos
Acknowledge the grief that comes hand in hand with saying farewell. Use it as an opportunity to discuss the meaningful relationships your child has built. Encourage children to express gratitude to friends and family members and help them resolve any difficult feelings that could later cause grief. Also, help them prepare to introduce themselves in a meaningful way when making new friends which allows them to honor where they are coming from yet also feel open-minded about where they are going.
If parents are not committed to going through any transition in a positive and honest manner, one cannot expect children to do so. Don’t negate the challenges that come with a move and help them manage the challenges so that they are ready to reap the benefits of this new experience in a much more meaningful way. You will also want to be intentional in how you carry portable traditions and your family’s history with you to your next destination. By celebrating and affirming all your past experiences, you will help your child develop a stronger sense of belonging to all of the places without feeling obliged to choose. You may need to accept that your child will identify more strongly with a culture (or several cultures) than the one you most identify with. As they navigate transitioning through different school cultures, they may also end up being more interested in pursuing further education in a different culture than you did. Allow them to develop their own unique identity so that they feel grounded and strong even though they had to face transition(s) during their developmental years.
Finally, so much of how a child experiences transition depends on how schools address and support transitions. Do not hesitate to ask prospective schools about how they will support your child as they move. Schools that acknowledge the challenges that come with transitions and that embrace the well-being of its students, should be able to answer any of your concerns. It is also well worth asking them how they connect with your child’s previous school to ensure a smooth transition. Your child’s welfare should be central to you and your child’s school. A strong partnership between schools and parents is key to a child’s positive transition experience.
Valérie Besanceney (MEd., MA, BA), author and International education and transition consultant, is well versed in how transitions can affect a child’s general well-being and learning experience. She is passionate about helping children feel grounded while moving. She moved numerous times as a child and has taught at six international schools on four different continents. With her children’s books B at Home: Emma Moves Again and My Moving Booklet, she hopes to offer children a story to identify with and the language and tools to successfully be able to understand their own ‘moving’ story. She is a board member for both Families in Global Transition and Safe Passage Across Networks. Being in a cross-cultural marriage and as a mother of two young girls, she can relate to raising children in a cross-cultural family. For more information on how you can support your child while moving, please visit her website: Roots with Boots: Helping Children Move.
Kübler-Ross, E. (1969). On Death and Dying: What the Dying Have to Teach Doctors, Nurses, Clergy and Their Own Families. Scribner.
Ota. D. 2014. Safe Passage: How mobility affects people & what international schools should do” about it. Great Britain: Summertime Publishing.
Pollock, D.C. and Van Reken, R.E. 2017. Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds. Boston: Nicholas Brealey Publishing
Simens, J. (2011). Emotional Resilience and the Expat Child: Practical Tips and Storytelling Techniques That Will Strengthen the Global Family. London, UK: Summertime Publishing.