My son was 7 when he went through his second international move. As he watched our house line up with boxes, he offered a glimpse into the turmoil that the move was causing him. “It feels like I am breaking apart my Lego spaceships that I spent all this time building,” he said, “just so I can build them again, from the beginning.”
In many ways, moving is a dismantling – of places, comforts, routines, connections. When we move, the hours we devoted to building our worlds (and Lego spaceships) come undone quite literally in front of our eyes. The external upheaval surrounding transitions is often mirrored in us internally, through a kaleidoscope of emotions. Suddenly, we are feeling sad for leaving friends, happy for the promised trampoline, worried about the new school, curious about the new soccer team. The onslaught of such a colorful assortment of affect is a heavy load – especially for children.
With its inherent challenges, mobility has an undeniable effect on children. According to a meta-analysis that reviewed 138 factors that influence learning (Hattie, 2009), mobility was found as most harmful for educational outcomes. But it doesn't have to be that way. In fact, as psychologist Doug Ota argues in his book Safe Passage, if handled properly, mobility across cultures can be a catalyst for tremendous growth. Schools can become key harbors of socialization and homes can turn to nests of secure attachments.
Here are 7 tips that Ota gives to parents in the throes of a move, summoned from 25 years of counseling families in transitions.
1. Say your goodbyes
“Moving, at its psychological core, is an experience of loss,” writes Ota. Saying goodbye to the people, places, and the roles that are left behind is an inherently difficult but necessary step. By helping children say a clear goodbye, we are helping them to say a clear hello.
2. Pick pivotal people
Pick a few important people from your child’s life from back “home” (grandparents, neighbors, friends) with whom your child could check in once in a while and tell them about their new life. It’s important to choose people who are staying put. This way, they can become the pivots around which your child’s stories can rotate.
“Do not underestimate the healing power of simply attending to whatever a child is saying,” writes Ota. Listen reflectively – discerning the core message, or reading between the lines – then repeat the core message back to the child to make sure you got them correctly. This shows empathy and the intention of wanting to truly understand their feelings and experiences. “Having you as an audience is often all they need.”
4. Maintain traditions
From an evolutionary perspective, human beings resist change. When everything in the landscape starts changing, we intuitively tighten our grasp on things that have stayed the same. For a successful mobility experience, Ota suggests maintaining continuity in space and time. This entails not only bringing along familiar things such as furniture, pictures and sacred objects, but also traditions. Whether they are Sunday dinners or bedtime rituals, doing the same things you used to do at the same time in your new place will provide this continuity.
5. Give children choices
During a move, children often feel like they don't have any choice or control over various parameters of their lives. “The long-term absence of control over these parameters can lead to two alternatives, either angry rebellion or learned helplessness,” writes Ota. The solution could be to give children choices. Whether it’s big ones (e.g., which school to attend) or small ones (e.g., how to decorate their rooms), having them participate in decision-making will help them feel like not everything is out of their control and thus, help to boost their confidence.
6. Welcome difficult feelings
Oftentimes, children will get the sense that they are not allowed to have negative feelings about the move. “Many feel under pressure from their parents (“Why can’t you just be positive for a change?”) or their environment (“You’re so lucky to be going to live abroad!”) to bury negative feelings,” writes Ota. These feelings have a better chance of relaxing and not popping up later in life if they are validated rather than when they are oppressed or denied. Encourage your child to feel like they are allowed to have all kinds of emotions about the move – including the negative ones. After all, navigating through life’s ups and downs is a skill well worth acquiring.
7. Extra help for the introverts
A lot of factors come into play with how well and how quickly we adapt to new environments. One of them is personality. “The more extroverted and assertive a person is, and the more he or she is open to new experiences, the more quickly he or she will adapt through the challenges of mobility,” says Ota. What about the introverts? Children who are shy or cautious, may inherently need more time to process their feelings and adapt to new environments. You can help these children by making them understand their personality strengths and the circumstances under which they thrive. “Teach them to look for somebody else who’s probably feeling afraid, like somebody standing by themselves,” suggests Ota. “Teach them to take a big deep breath, walk up to that person, and introduce themselves. Then find out where the person’s coming from, and what his or her hobbies are. Before they know it, they might have a friend.”
The daunting thing about having to dismantle a beloved Lego spaceship at age 7 (or a life, at any age), involves the grief of letting go, and the uncertainty of having to put it all back together again. Of crouching on some carpet, in the corner of some room, with a million colorful pieces in front of us. The new creation will rarely be the same one we left behind. Old pieces get lost, new ones are acquired. But perhaps our strength can come from knowing that we get to keep our building skills. That in time, we will love the new ship just as much, because we built it ourselves. We put in the hours, we mustered the efforts, we rose above loss and disorientation of new beginnings. One piece at a time. A safe passage through any transition involves the marriage of many steps, many moments of perseverance. From Doug Ota’s observations, parents and schools can do a lot to help children during those times. After all, the reward for children is far bigger than a new ship. It’s life maturity. It’s resilience. It’s the confidence of knowing that they can go through challenges and come out on the other side. The reward is also a broadened mind. The appreciation of what is possible and what is true. And the realization that there is more than one way of being right.
That is no small prize for anyone.
Many thanks to Doug Ota for being generous with his time and insights. The 7 tips are adapted from his article for ReLocate Magazine, August, 2015.
Ota, D. (2014). Safe Passage, How mobility affects people and what international schools should do about it. Summertime Publishing, UK.
Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of meta-analyses in education. Routledge, NY.