I had moved five countries and happily welcomed the challenges of new traditions, languages and ways of life…until I had kids. Afterwards, each of my three international moves with children in tow felt like climbing Mount Everest. Together with a Swiss-based, British-born parenting educator and family coach Tammy Furey, we discuss the best ways to navigate the twists and turns of relocation with children, and how to enjoy the view in the process.
Tammy, you advise a lot of expat parents in Switzerland and abroad. What are the most common issues families come to you with?
Many expat families experience dislocation on personal, family and community levels. On a personal level, many expat mothers find themselves thrown into the identity of house wife (or stay-at-home-mom). This disrupts their sense of identity, worth and purpose in their new world. On a family level, many experience a sudden change as their wider family and friends' support network disappears in the move. The insecurity, loneness, lack of direction and dissatisfaction can result in an increasing strain on the family.
What do you usually recommend in those cases?
We need to give ourselves time to become more comfortable with change and transition. The unhappiness often results from our resistance to the current situation and spills into our perception of every small detail of our surroundings and our day. The only way to be happy is to focus on what we have now, rather than thinking about the past. Know that your thinking, not Switzerland, is making you unhappy.
On a community level, there are many positive opportunities for friendship and support. The expat communities in Switzerland are used to, and enjoy, welcoming new families and showing them how things work and how to settle in this new land.
What are some typical mistakes parents make right after the move?
Firstly, some underestimate the importance of their child's bedroom. It's crucial to create a safe and secure place for a child as soon as possible. Next, not identifying and bringing along key toys, games and books that can facilitate establishing that protected, familiar environment your child needs from the start.
Another common mistake is not being prepared for a change of behavior in your child. Unfortunately, you can't predict
that change. It might include anything — slight behavioral regressions, increasing tensions, complete withdrawal or none of the above.
Often your child behaves clingier because you, as a parent, become home. Be there, attention-wise, as much as you can for them.
Could you share any recurring complaints about children you hear from newcomers?
Children of any age can display challenging behaviors as they process their emotions regarding the relocation, which might appear very disturbing to parents. Younger children, trying to learn two languages, can become frustrated and try to communicate by biting, hitting, kicking and screaming.
What are the solutions?
Understanding that the problem is not behavioral, it is a form of communication based on your child's thinking at the time. The best support that can be given to a child of any age is to deeply listen and allow any emotions to be expressed. The child is often simply communicating how he or she feels. Parents need to know that the behavior will usually pass as the child adapts, just hang in there.
So we have to be prepared for those temporary changes. How long, on average, can parents expect it to take their kids to adjust?
Be prepared for anything. In my experience, it ranges from almost immediate integration to a two-year sulk.
How can expat parents help their children adjust to a new country when it's new and foreign for them as well?
For a child, the parents will always be home. Therefore, focusing on a loving connection between a parent and a child is vital to help the child integrate. Children need to know that when they return home after school, they are in a safe, supportive, understanding and loving environment. A resilient family can be happy anywhere. When we help our children understand that they are safe and loved, no matter what, it allows them to carry happiness inside of them in any school or country.
What is the easiest age for kids to adjust? And what is the most difficult one?
Usually four- and five-year-olds and under adjust the fastest but you do get more tensions and possible tantrums. This tension, however, is short-lived. I have found, within my practice, that children who move after the ages of nine to 10 have more trouble adapting. They have already developed important friendships and support networks back home that they have had to leave. Also brain changes mean that their ability speak a new language like a native is lessening. But primarily we return to resilience. The older the children are, the more their values and beliefs have developed which determine how they see the world. They have some fixed ideas and expectations on how things should be that can be deeply challenged by new cultures. It can be wonderful to challenge these beliefs but it is not always a smooth ride.
Most families with short-term assignments in Switzerland opt for international schools. Those staying long term, say five years or more, do have a choice. What would you recommend?
Families staying long term may want to consider the benefits of fully learning the local languages and experiencing the local culture. The potential for your child to become bilingual has numerous psychological and neurological benefits. Experiencing cultures can help your child speak to and relate to a wide range of people, feel comfortable in diverse social situations and adapt to changes faster. However, international schools offer a faster transition experience, and an almost immediate friend and support network. Here too, a huge range of diverse cultures and languages can be experienced.
How do we prepare our kids for local public schools?
I really think it is more about preparing the parents. The Swiss system can be very different to how British and American parents perceive early childhood education. Children are introduced to reading, writing and arithmetic much later here. Many British and American parents are not familiar with the system, and might become concerned about the educational development of their child. The secret to success is working out how the teacher expects your child to behave and what standards of work are expected. This can vary greatly between teachers, schools and regions.
What are some of the difficulties bilingual children might face?
Bilingual children often have, initially, a smaller range of emotional vocabulary to explain their feelings. If you notice your child is using only a few words to explain a great range of emotional reactions, you can start using more words. For example, my daughter used the word ‘angry' to describe several emotional states, so I asked, "Are you feeling sad? Are you frustrated? Or are you really angry?" After we discussed those terms together, she understood more about emotions. As a result, she could calm down quicker as she could explain what was happening for her and we could more effectively find solutions to her problems.
Living in a foreign country naturally has its ups and downs. Sometimes we feel uncomfortable, stressed and even depressed. Should we hide our negative emotions from our kids or is it ok to be open?
First and foremost, our children want to be raised by parents, not robots. They need to know that they're safe to express their emotions. If we show emotions, it helps them understand that all emotional reactions are relevant and valid.
But it's important to remember that emotions are a direct result of our thinking. So if we are upset, we can explain to our children that we got trapped in some ‘upset thinking.' This can help them understand themselves and their own reactions better.