Two homes, three hotels and four Airbnbs: that’s been my life for the last six months. It hasn’t exactly been a grounding experience, especially for my children. Covid threw me a curveball, and my children have had to cope with a lot of change and uncertainty. For anyone going through something similar, here’s what I’ve learnt about how to help your child cope with change.
How to help your child cope with change
- Be open about the change. Last summer my children were happily settled in Chile. I hadn’t thought about discussing our move to Ecuador with them. My eldest kid is only six, after all. But then I asked around expat parent friends and they all agreed – talk to your children about the move, and sooner rather than later. Of course you need to explain things in a child friendly, positive manner, but don’t hide any upcoming change from them. A surprise will not be a nice surprise!
- Choose the right time to talk. Children need time to process their feelings. Like adults, children also need time to prepare mentally, to think about what this change might mean for them. In my case, there was no point involving my kids in discussions before I was absolutely sure we would move, but as soon the move was confirmed, it was time to bring it up. Talking last minute is not a nice surprise, and as a friend pointed out to me, it’s actually rather disrespectful.
- Listen. I had prepared a lot of scenarios in my head about how my children would take the idea of moving to a new country, but in fact they took it very well at first. It was only when the move became a reality, when they saw the packing boxes stacked up that the doubts kicked in. In the midst of all the chaos that comes with a move, or indeed most change, it can be hard to take time to just listen. Yet it’s so important. I also find it useful to gather feedback on a routine basis. Sometimes children don’t share their pains openly. So personally I’ve found it helpful to make a mental note to myself to check in on my kids at a specific, calm point in the day. For example while walking home from school, over dinner or before bed, I’ll check in and ask how they are feeling. As I’ve learnt the hard way, children might not bring up something that’s bothering them. Asking open questions on a routine basis can help bring up any fears or doubts your kids may have.
- Cherish familiar comforts. With so much change and uncertainty, I was sure to pack a few of my kids’ favourite teddies. (Or rather I forgot my eldest child’s stuffed dragon toy and begged the removal guys to unpack all boxes until it was found). My kids get all excited with new toys, new clothes and basically anything new, but I’ve noticed that whenever they feel upset they go to their old favourite or pick out an older item of clothing. It’s not just about stuff; it can also be a favourite food, a favourite TV programme, anything that helps create a feeling of familiarity.
- Try to create routine. Locked down in a hotel in Ecuador, it was really tough to create any sense of routine. Without enough beds to go round, everyday we woke up exhausted after a bad night’s sleep. However I found that even a small level of routine among so much chaos really helped us feel grounded. While I couldn’t stick to a timetable, just having a regular, repetitive plan did help. Here in the UK now, my kids now know the drill: get dressed, breakfast, home schooling, then it’s time for some crafts or a walk, followed by lunch and after that it’s ‘quiet time’ – i.e. time for mummy to work. It’s not a perfect solution, but I’m more peaceful as I know I’ll get time to work, and my kids find the stability of structure very reassuring. My children seem to find it comforting to hear what we did yesterday, what we plan to do today and our plans for tomorrow.
- Look after yourself to look after your kids. The old maxim about fitting your own life jacket before fitting someone else’s never rang so true. It’s worth remembering that parents are humans, not machines and the change can get to us too. There have been times when I’ve felt so unbelievably stressed during my moves. As a parent, it’s all to easy to bury our own anxiety, concerns and worries to deal with the moment and look after our number one priority – our children. But this doesn’t do anyone any favours. I know I need time out, even if it’s just a brief walk on my own or a trip to the supermarket. Having some ‘me time’ on the horizon helps me to get through those moments when everything seems to be falling apart. And in turn this helps me to be a more patient parent. Again, my solution right now is not perfect as my ‘me time’ is very limited, but I cherish any time to myself and schedule it in where possible.
- Believe in your parental power. Change can be tough for parents and children. However there is a huge difference between positive change among a strong family support network and a traumatic experience that a child must face alone. A 2013 American study showed that too much instability in a child’s life can irreversibly damage their brain’s inner functioning. However the good news is that a loving parent can act as a buffer against any negative effects. In fact the study also underlined that through change children can learn ‘how to cope with adversity, adapt to their surroundings and regulate their emotions’. As a parent, I’ve sometimes been so preoccupied with the damage of change, that I’ve failed to see the growth. I think it’s really important to believe in your worth as a parent / guardian. And this positive mindset will translate into your child, too.
- Prepare for regression. When change is on the cards, regression might be too. I’ve found it very hard to deal with tantrums, fighting and what I perceived to be naughtiness, when in fact in hindsight I realise it’s been my children’s way of adjusting and processing emotions. Some of my friends moving abroad told me how their kids reversed to bed wetting or baby-like behaviour. It’s normal and not something to freak out over. It can be hard to deal with as a parent, though. I appreciate it’s not always possible, but if you can get extra help at home, do it. Now is not the time for stressing over homework, it’s time for relaxing rules. It’s a time for take out dinners, unmade beds and a happy, if messy home. Your kids will need you more, they’ll test your patience more and if someone else can at least deal with the laundry, that’s one thing less to worry about. I’ve found the expat community incredibly supportive and I’m less shy about asking for help.
- Enjoy the ride, not just the destination. As the child of divorced parents I know that not all changes are fun. I am not downplaying how difficult major life changes can be. Yet, it is possible to mark special moments even within many difficult transitions. I look back to my childhood as a very happy one on the whole, a childhood punctuated with toasting muffins at the fireside, reading together at bedtime and playing hide and seek. Life under lockdown in Ecuador with my kids was damn tough, but we did have some epic water fights in the sunshine! Another great tip comes from a fellow expat mum – make a special effort at the start and the end of the day for your kids. So instead of reaching to my phone or jumping into action on a morning, I’m taking a moment for extra an extra snuggle. Yes, my days can be horribly chaotic, but we always start and end the day with an ‘I love you’.
- If necessary, seek professional help. Perhaps you feel life is better since the change, but your child may disagree with you. Yes, you’re the adult, but that doesn’t invalidate your child’s feelings. Chances are your child will be just fine. However, I am not a qualified psychologist, child behaviour specialist or therapist. I’m just a mother and while I know my kids, I don’t know yours. If you feel that whatever change in your child’s life is seriously impacting on their daily life or schedule for the foreseeable future, you might like to investigate professional support. Look for a qualified expert who is accredited by a professional body, for example in the UK look to a chartered psychologist and member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy.
The Expater and its materials are not intended to treat, diagnose, cure or prevent any disease or mental health complaint. All material on The Expater is provided for general information purposes only. Always seek the advice of your doctor or a qualified healthcare provider for any questions you have regarding a medical condition, and before undertaking any health-related programme.