By Dr. Jeff Devens
I remember my initial impressions of our first international move. In the span of twenty-four hours, we went from a sunny day in clean, efficient, predictable Minnesota, USA, to the wonderful zaniness that is Beijing, China. Talk about contrasts!
It was 1996, but walking through the airport in Beijing felt like we’d passed through a wormhole and been transported to a bygone era. The military-green paint that peeled off the airport walls contrasted sharply with the bright red communist star on the ceiling, and we knew we weren’t among the familiar in any sense of the word.
What began as a two-year overseas experience has grown into a twenty-four-year lifestyle. Living in China, Saudi Arabia and, most recently, Singapore has afforded us life-enriching experiences – experiences that have forever changed our lives.
For some of you, Singapore is your first international posting or deployment. Others of you are seasoned veterans who have previously lived overseas. In either case, there’s a series of transition stages that both kids and parents will go through.
Being aware of these stages can reassure you that what you and your family are going through is normal.
Stage 1: Settled
This describes your status before your move. For children, this means they are attending school, have a predictable, established routine with a peer group, and are engaged in the community. They are responsive and responsible.
Stage 2: Leaving
At some point, a decision is made to move. This decision may provide several months prior notice, or it could require a move within a few short weeks. Leaving is a time of saying goodbye and disengaging. Kids and adults experience a range of emotional responses during this period, including excitement, joy, anticipation, anxiety, denial, anger, resentment, bargaining, sadness, and loss.
Stage 3: Honeymoon
Upon arriving in an unfamiliar cultural context, the common tendency is to look for what is familiar and establish a routine. It’s also a time when others extend themselves to welcome new families. Kids tend to feel pretty good and function at a high level. The honeymoon stage typically lasts ten minutes to two months.
Stage 4: Disorientation
For many, the more they interact with the host culture, the more they become disoriented and melancholy. Two primary reasons for this are the loss of social support systems (friends, family, community) and the lack of predictability. People may experience a range of emotional responses: mourning the loss of friends, feeling isolated, exaggerating problems and behaviors, feeling tired and grumpy, judging the host culture negatively, and refusing to connect. It’s not uncommon for kids to want to stay tethered to friends in their previous location/posting and not make new friends. Holing up in their bedrooms, they may spend significant amounts of time communicating with their old friends online. They may also struggle academically during the first quarter or semester of school. This period usually lasts from one to six months.
Stage 5: Recovery and Adjustment
As kids continue to interact with the new culture, they begin to incorporate their understanding of themselves, school, friends, and so forth, and start to feel at home. Their functioning levels typically return to normal, sometimes even to higher than normal levels because of all they have learned about themselves and the world. The benefits of this include increased social maturity, a broader worldview, less prejudice, and a greater cultural and religious tolerance.
At Singapore American School, we work with parents to ensure that pupils are settled and the period of transition is as smooth as possible. It is natural, however, for parents to have questions and concerns during this time; here are some of the most common.
My child was doing well academically at their previous school, but now they are struggling. What’s going on here?
Make allowances for kids who appear out-of-sync academically, at least during the first nine weeks of school. It is also important to understand the demographics of the school population. In your child’s previous school, they may have been a good student, but by international standards, they may be academically average. The international community often has a larger percent-age of high-level academics due to demographics: Most students come from intact, middle to upper class, well-educated families with stable support systems in place. As such, academic rigor is a foundational part of the makeup of these families and schools.
If your child isn’t making consistent progress, speak with their teachers. Be sure to talk with the elective teachers (physical education, music, art) as well. These teachers can often provide information related to the social-emotional aspects of your child’s situation and adjustment, which are perhaps more important than academic aspects during the transition phase.
To convince my child to move, I had to promise we would go back to visit the place we are currently living during midterm break. Was this a good idea?
Yes and no. If your kids are well adjusted and have come to understand that transitions are a natural part of the international experience, then offering them the opportunity to reconnect with old friends can demonstrate to them that you recognize the importance of friends in their lives.
In some cases, children finally begin to settle into the routine of living in a new post, only to start the process all over again after they visit their old friends. Each family is unique; parents should keep in mind how their kids handle transitions before making concessions.
Why isn’t my child connecting or engaging with peers?
When children enter a new environment, they look for what’s familiar. Kids thrive on routine, predictability, and relationships. When they don’t find these, a host of negative emotional and physiological responses can be set in motion.
Transitions may affect children in a myriad of ways: withdrawal, rebelliousness, anxiety, clinginess, night terrors, stunted academic progress or little physical activity. To some degree, these reactions and responses are to be expected. The difficulty occurs when the behavior becomes persistent (typically lasting more than twelve weeks). In such cases, it’s vitally important to speak with your child’s teachers or counselor, explaining the specifics of what you’re noting. Adjustment to a new post can take eighteen to thirty-six weeks. Most kids, however, make the necessary changes and return to normal or higher levels of functioning within the first eighteen weeks.
What if my child refuses to connect?
Refusing to connect does happen, and when it does, it is taxing for the entire family. I remember working with a family who had a senior in high school (age seventeen). The new location was the last place he wanted to be, even though he had willingly agreed to move there several months prior. Initially, he refused to go to school. When he did finally show up, he refused to do any schoolwork. He continued to demand a return “home,” even though there was no one there to look after him. As the year progressed, he bargained, threatened, and harassed his parents. They eventually decided Mom would go back home and allow him to finish out his senior year in the United States, while Dad remained overseas.
When this potential exists, it is important for parents to ask themselves one essential question: Is there any chance whatsoever my child could return to the previous post or home? If the answer is “maybe,” or “we’ll see,” and your child does not want to move, you can expect conflict. It is far better to say no from the outset and deal with that conflict than to throw out a bribe that you know isn’t a real option. Parents often make decisions with which their kids disagree. Sadly, in the above case, the message this young man walked away with was that his needs were more important than the family’s.
Should we allow our son to continue communicating with his old friends even when he doesn’t seem to be connecting with his peers at the new school?
With the advent of Facebook, Twitter, Skype, Instagram, Snapchat, SMS, and other social media, it’s difficult to keep kids from being in contact with old friends. In fact, it’s quite common—and healthy—for children to form lifelines with former classmates, using them as a base of support and security during the transition. Difficulty arises when they refuse to connect with the host culture, school, and new peers. Even with this possibility, however, I wouldn’t remove or restrict access to old friends unless they were a negative influence. As your children engage with peers in their new school, a routine will develop (through sports, clubs, sleepovers, etc.), and they’ll see that forming new friendships doesn’t mean betraying old ones.
It’s important for kids to have a routine in their sleep patterns. Sometimes teens will want to remain in contact with old peers even though there is a twelve-hour time-zone difference. Parents may need to help them regulate the amount of time they spend online.