Relocating and starting a new chapter in another country can be an exciting and fulfilling experience. As expatriates, we recognize the opportunity and enrichment that living abroad may bring, but with any significant change or transition comes loss. As an educational psychologist working in the international context, I am often asked why relocating can be an anti-climax; why family life can suddenly transform from a household of calm and contentment, to one of tears and tantrums.

The impact of change and transition affects each of us differently. It is dependent on the nature of the change: was it planned, expected, voluntary? Is there a knock-on effect to other changes and are these temporary or permanent? Has there been experience of change in the past and was this considered positive? Answers to these questions are likely to differ for each family member. Consequences that are considered highly significant to one individual may appear unimportant to another and perceived lack of support or understanding may escalate feelings of isolation and detachment from ‘home’. It can be difficult to express or verbalize these feelings and behavior often becomes the primary form of communication, particularly among children.

Parents should first consider the oxygen mask analogy: passengers are always reminded to first fit their own mask because if they run out of oxygen they will be unable to help anyone else. The same applies for emotional wellbeing; when we are emotionally 'full up', we have no capacity to provide emotional support to those around us. In extreme circumstances this can result in something psychologists refer to as ‘blocked care’; when a care-giver is unable to respond to the needs of their child (or person in need) because they are consumed by their
own stressors.

Psychologists have, for a long time, emphasized the importance of a safe environment and secure relationships as prerequisites for higher order thinking skills and emotional regulation. Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and Marjorie Boxall’s model of nurture both have their bases in establishing a consistent, predictable and structured environment. For children and adults alike, when our environment becomes the opposite of this, our anxiety levels increase and stress hormones are released that prompt primitive behavioral responses. Stress not only causes us to act like we are wearing blinkers and focus repetitively and exclusively on the source of the 'threat', but also impairs our ability to think logically and rationally, remember things, manage our emotions, have quality sleep and even fight illness and infection. When relocating, is it important to retain the same or similar routines, boundaries, expectations, rules and consequences so that our familiar environment has not changed completely, but has done just that – relocated.

The oxygen mask analogy is but one reason why relationships often suffer during times of change and transition. With less capacity to manage stress, we become over-reactive and over-sensitive to daily events and, as our behaviors become less rational, our relationships suffer as others struggle to relate to our responses. By prioritizing time for rest, relaxation and ‘me time’, we are putting on our own oxygen masks and increasing our capacity to face daily challenges and respond to those who need us. Only when we feel safe and in control of our environment, can we develop, establish and maintain positive relationships that are reciprocal in nature. It is through these relationships that we can access support and comfort, gain perspective and normalize our emotions and experiences. Tears and tantrums are normal as we readjust and reestablish ‘home’ in our new surroundings. As the Chinese proverb states, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

Vivienne Scott is an Educational Psychologist working with Dover Court International School. Before her own relocation to Singapore in 2015, Vivienne worked in Scotland where she coordinated support for children and families who had experienced significant loss and change, among a wide range of other social, emotional and learning support needs.

Read the full publication online by clicking here.