Raising Internationally Mobile Children

Are you raising internationally mobile children?
Are you wondering what effect moving various countries can have on your children? 

Together with Natasha Winnard, an international youth empowerment consultant, and Lena Lee, author of Girl Uprooted, we delved into the challenges and lasting impacts of frequent relocations on children in an interview on youtube, where we also shared tips to support the mental health of children who grow up in multiple countries.

 

Children’s adaptability

Lena experienced moving internationally every three years. She describes the effect these frequent changes had on her in her book Girl Uprooted. Changing countries meant to change house, school, friends, food, language, culture, climate and saying goodbye to parts of herself. Although children are considered "very resilient", they are not infinitely adaptable! Every child has their limit. And the impact of this kind of childhood can surface at any stage, very often in adulthood, when one stops moving around so much and starts thinking more about identity and belonging.

In her practice Natasha observes that "TCK’s can be particularly vulnerable at the post school stage". This is even more challenging for "TCKs when they are away from their normal support networks, often also navigating new cultures/regional accents, independent living and new ways of studying, working or living in new countries".
In her work she finds that  "many of the globally mobile 15-18 year olds [she has] worked with over the years in international schools around the world reach out again during or after their college or university years because they are struggling. As parents and carers we need to be more attuned to this challenging time and what we need to do to support our young adults". As a healthy routine, she suggests regular face to face meetings, if not possible in person, then on screen: "regular face to face contact is crucial. We need to see our children, even if it is on a WhatsApp call. We can tell a huge amount about how our children are coping by seeing them. Many parents are relying too heavily on messaging only".

 

What you see is not everything

In fact, what you see is not everything. When children and young adults are "acting out" or turn quiet, they are likely to be dealing with a lot more than meets the eye. Lena warns to "not underestimate the challenges". For parents to reach out for help is not always easy. Depending on the parents' cultures and attitudes towards mental health problems, it can be difficult to address issues that are "not visible" or not as tangible as a broken leg. Mental health issues are not as visible as an open wound, but certainly not less in need of care!

Natasha advises parents to "not hesitate to reach out to others for support and guidance even if you have slight concerns. Talk with friends, family members, other parents, educators and consultants. Share your concerns and worries".
Talking can often help gain more clarity on what is normal behaviour in given circumstances, and what should be monitored or is motive of concern and needs action.

I heard many parents consider it as "typical teenage behaviour". It is difficult for parents to define what is "in the norm" and what not. A change of behaviour during and shortly after a school or post transition should not be taken lightly.

 

When culture impacts mental health

Natasha and I both know about the signs of mental health struggles. Fact is, that they are not that easily to detect. Mental health is a very sensitive topic of discussion and sometimes cultures can impact mental health. Every culture has a different way to looking at mental health. In some it is seen as a stigma, a weakness, which makes it more difficult if not impossible for those struggling to talk openly about it and to ask for help. Even when talking about symptoms, we can observe different ways to describe and feel about symptoms. Reaching out for help among friends or family members is not an option for many, which makes it even more important that resources and treatment options are at the reach of everyone! 

Many parents don't hesitate to take a First Aid course to be prepared for any emergency with regards to their family's physical health. So, we invite parents to take a Mental Health First Aid course that equips them with the necessary knowledge.

 

The benefit of routines 

Every international move takes a toll on the whole family, no matter how happy or prepared they are for the move. International moves, like major life changes like a divorce or the loss of a person, trigger feelings of grief.


A healthy way to deal with this feeling is to face and embrace it with all its ups and downs. Building a R.A.F.T.(T.) before and during transition has proven to be beneficial, as healthy goodbyes lead to happy hellos. When the whole world is upside down, building a sense of continuity and stability in our family's life is crucial. Whatever makes the transition smoother and the adaptation period easier is going to have a positive effect on the whole experience. When changing country, language, food, climate, friends, we may want to keep some pillars of our previous "world" to build and lean on, like the language of education and the school curriculum. Like some of my clients' children, Lena has changed curriculum and language of education several times. They all found this extremely difficult to navigate!

Natasha recommends to "stay informed about the educational options available in different countries and seek guidance from educators or educational consultants to ease the transition. It is important to understand how changing curriculums can impact the style of learning and assessments."

Furthermore, language changes in older years are not only challenging for building and nurturing social relationships, which are so important especially for adolescents, they also affect our teenagers' confidence. Being able to function academically in an additional language requires an immense effort and time! Having learned that additional language before moving is often not enough to be able to use it in all subjects. It is like asking someone who has level A2 or B1 in the target language, to be able to read, write, do critical thinking, research, analyse and problem-solve in that language in often less than a year (!). No adult would be able to do this at work, so, why would one expect this from children and teenagers?

 

Listen and read in between the lines

A good listener listens not only to what is being said, but also to what is left unsaid.  We have two ears and one mouth for a reason... Especially when we, parents, are stressed and worry about the move and our life changes, our children are in survival mode. They will try to not upset us, do what is expected from them, and suppress their emotions. A psychology friend once told me that "the quieter the child, the louder they scream". It doesn't need to get that far though. If we keep an open mind and listen to what and how (!) our children are saying, and what they are not (!) saying, we become very good at reading in between the lines. So, take the time, slow down, listen, and build a caring environment and home (wherever you are, also in the places "in between") for your family. 

Natasha invites to "take the time to think “who are the caring adults in my child’s life who really see my child” And when someone sees something acknowledge it and nurture that network". 

 

Each child is different

Even siblings can have very different ways to deal with challenges. Some are more sensitive than others. Every family member goes through transition in their very own, personal way, and they experience it in often very different ways.

Not everyone growing up in multiple cultures will have mental health issues, but chances are high(er) that they might struggle to some extent, at some point.

 

Actively seek resources

Foster connections within the international community to provide a sense of belonging and support, and engage with other parents and educators to share experiences, resources, and strategies for navigating the challenges of an international childhood. 

To find out what an international childhood might entail, we recommend you read Third Culture Kids, by Ruth van Reken, David C. Pollock and Michael V. Pollock:

 

↑Click on the image and download the interactive pdf file↑

 

 

I invite you to watch my interview with Natasha and Lena on this topic:

Natasha Winnard is an international youth empowerment consultant fueled by a passion to support and guide young people to thrive. She has worked with amazing children, young people, families and educators for more than 25 years as an international educator, K-12 (3-18 years) comprehensive (academic, social and emotional) counsellor/pastoral care and safeguarding lead, college, university and future pathways counsellor, mentor and volunteer in schools and communities in Europe, Asia, Africa and South America. Natasha Winnard Consultancy provides holistic, personalised guidance for young people and their families looking for support in the world of international education.

Lena Lee was born in South Korea but grew up moving countries every three years. As a Third Culture Kid, she has lived in Seoul, Paris, Oslo, Kuala Lumpur and New Jersey. After studying Human Sciences at Oxford University, Lena has been working in finance. Girl Uprooted is her first book. She lives in London, a place she now calls home(ish).

For further questions or support, please reach out to us, or leave a comment here below.

Further readings on my site

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