When I first expressed my concern to friends and family about how our kids (then aged 3 and 6) would cope with our forthcoming move from London to California, everyone was quick to reassure me how adaptable children are.
In reality, it turned out that uprooting ourselves from our little patch of West London was more stressful than we had imagined. At home we couldn’t go out to the corner shop without bumping into a friend, and the kids’ grandparents were on hand for regular babysitting. Landing in San Francisco, where everything was so different, and where we knew no one, was a shock to the system. My husband had to get to grips with his new job immediately, which left me entertaining the two children on my own during the remaining 3 weeks of the summer holidays. The sun may have shone every day, but when my son wailed for the 10th time “who can we have a play date with?!”, and my daughter had another tantrum about nothing, I would have gladly traded the blue sky for London’s grey.
Things got better, of course. School started and I went into friend-making overdrive in order to make the playdates happen…and to create a much-needed new support network for myself. Luckily, this was easy to do in California, where people are outgoing and (at least superficially) friendly. We got used to buying super-sized, unfamiliar products in the enormous supermarkets and gave up trying to walk anywhere.
By the time we left the US, three years later, we were very much part of the local community and had shared so many formative experiences there that our ‘re-entry’ back to London was more traumatic than the original move – something I never would have expected.
I imagine my story will resonate with anyone who has relocated with a family in tow. Culture shock is a universally acknowledged phenomenon. Surface cultural differences (those things that are most visibly different about a new country such as weather, clothes and food) are easily adapted to. What takes longer to overcome is the feeling that you have lost your identity: you know no one, and no one knows you. What’s more, you no longer have a grasp on social norms and your communication skills appear to have vanished overnight. In short, you just don’t belong.
According to Douglas Ota’s excellent book ‘Safe Passage’ about how mobility affects people, belonging is a big deal. In Maslow’s classic ‘hierarchy of needs’ pyramid, ‘love, affection and belonging’ are the next most important requirements right after physiological and physical safety needs. Other scientific research has shown that recently relocated individuals experience a strong need to ‘attach’ to a new community in order to feel secure, that social exclusion lights up the same parts of the brain as the experience of physical pain, and that being in the presence of trusted others makes us less daunted by challenges. We also know that when someone (adult or child) is experiencing an overload of stress and difficult emotions they are less able to perform and fulfil their potential. In short, feeling like a cultural outsider brings many negative consequences.
Luckily there are many things parents can do to help themselves and their children adapt to these cultural transitions, whether they are relocating overseas or returning home again. Below are some tips to bear in mind:
Acknowledge what you are losing and make time for proper goodbyes before you leave. You and your kids need to ‘grieve’ for your old life in order to be able to move on and embrace the new.
At the same time, get excited about what lies ahead! Books and photographs (if relevant) may help your kids visualise their new life.
If your company offers cultural training for your children as well as for you, make sure you take it up. This may be especially relevant if your children will be
attending the local school system, and can be adapted for different age groups.
Be aware that older children will likely find moves harder than younger children. Switching between different education systems is much more difficult for high school aged kids. Also, teenagers derive their sense of self from their peer group rather than their family, so will miss friends more.
This is not to say that young children will find relocation a breeze – pre-school children may feel unsettled because they can’t fully understand what is going on and won’t be able to articulate their feelings about it. Keeping to a daily routine with plenty of age-appropriate stimulation (going to playgrounds etc) will help.
If, as is common, you relocate during the summer holidays, the absence of routine may delay integration (or re-integration) into the local community. Try to have fun exploring your new surroundings as a family in the meantime, enjoying the highlights of your new location.
Admittedly it’s not easy to treat a relocation like a holiday when there is so much admin involved in setting up a new life! And because it’s all new, the simplest of tasks take longer than they would at home. Here’s where agencies such as Parental Choice can help – by providing direct assistance with the paperwork and/or getting childcare in place as soon as possible so you can hit the ground running.
Another huge benefit of having childcare organised early on in your move is that it will allow you to take much-needed time to yourself. You can’t help the rest of your family if you’re too frazzled to think straight.
Seek out people who understand what you’re going through as much as possible, such as other expats or locals who have lived abroad at some point in their lives. At the beginning they will be the people you most connect with.
International schools – especially those that have signed up to the Safe Passage program or provide other types of transitional support – can be very helpful at first, but the transitory nature of such communities doesn’t always suit. Again, Parental Choice can help find the right school(s) for your family depending on your circumstances.
Polly Collingridge is Family Global Mobility Manager (EMEA) at Parental Choice
Parental Choice are working in EMEA and APAC to help families with their relocation. We can help with finding schools, childcare, local orientation and extracurricular activities. Get in touch to see how we can help.