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The Effect of Relocation on Kids

Relocation is both exciting and challenging. New opportunities, new friendships, new places to discover… while leaving the people and places you know and love. You are exchanging comfort for possibilities. It is not easy. How do you ensure that your child makes the transition smoothly?

When uprooted from everything familiar and moved to a new reality, the most common reactions children exhibit are fear, anxiety and anger. Your child might seem rebellious or difficult. They may be too active or too lethargic, and  no longer enjoy an activity they were excited about before the move. Appetite and sleep patterns might also change. Attention span and concentration may be affected, and then of course, academic performance will suffer. Your child might find it more difficult to get along with other children, and even teachers. Children might take to biting nails or picking at their skin. Any or all of these should tell you that all is not well.

Some age groups will be more seriously affected by relocation. Pre-schoolers (3-5 years of age), for instance, cannot verbally express their distress, cannot comprehend the change, or verbalize their feelings about it. They do not have enough coping skills to deal with the situation. Result: tantrums! Pre-adolescents, on the other hand, want to be independent. But at 11-12 years of age, they are not old enough to participate in decision-making, and they might feel that they have no say in the matter and have to follow their parents’ decisions. Result: rebellion!

For adolescents, friends offer the initial experience of social life; they learn how to behave and engage with society. With friends, they feel secure, can air their opinions, share their feelings, and ask for help. They also learn how others feel about their appearance and behavior. They spend time with those they share common interests with and learn about themselves and their interests. Separation from such friends could be perceived as a loss, triggering a grieving process. Give them time to grieve, help them mourn the loss, listen to them talk about their best friends for the millionth time this week… Eventually, they’ll be ready to make new friends.

Preparing for Relocation

Given the impact relocation has on children, the best way to help them deal with it is to prepare them for the move. Older kids can be informed at least three months in advance. The topic can be discussed right until the move and for some time after.

As parents, you should be honest and have simple conversations that allow your children to express their thoughts about relocating. Accept negative as well as positive feelings. Negative thoughts mean they are angry and sad and it is important that such feelings are expressed. So, pay attention to your child’s emotions, not just the words they use. Reassure them that you will do your best to help them settle into the new place. This is an ongoing process and you must maintain an open channel to talk about their feelings before and after relocating. They need to know that they have the space to voice their fears and have someone to rely on. While you can share your own feelings with the children, don’t burden them with any negative emotions you might be feeling; it would only make a scared child more anxious.

After you move, make regular time for your children and keep a close eye on them for six to twelve months. Maintain old routines as much as possible to help your children adjust. If your move is necessitated by divorce or a negative factor, it will influence how well your child can adjust. However, most kids are resilient and only need our support.

Choosing the Right School

In any relocation that involves children, the role of the school cannot be overestimated. A new school can be overwhelming. Some parents opt for home schooling to minimize this stress. However, while homeschooling allows for flexible and customized education, it limits the social life of children and they could end up with fewer opportunities to work as part of a group.

Thus, choosing the right school is very important. Authorities must be supportive and patient. Shifting children who are having difficulties to a lower class may affect their self esteem. Talk to the school about any problems your children may be facing. Find support from the school counselor and from professionals. Your child may have an adjustment disorder and may need help.

Among school children, comments about looks and physical features are common. If your children do not have self-esteem issues, then they should be able to cope. If not, they will need your support. Talk to them, highlight their positive points, and help them feel good about themselves. You could also talk to school authorities and ensure that they clarify acceptable and unacceptable behavior.

If you cannot find the right school for your children, then you may need to find other activities that can help them settle in the new place. Participation in sports, art, music, and dance activities that your children may have enjoyed before the move will help them find something familiar in the new location too. It also facilitates social interaction with children in the same age group or who share common interests, which helps speed up their adjustment.

Some children that I have worked with have shown signs of anxiety as well, which manifests as hair loss. A new routine, a new environment, and new people are all stress factors that children might find difficult to handle. This will only frustrate them and make them unhappy. While serious mental disorders are unlikely, children do need space and time to express themselves, reconcile and accept the change. They will need your support and that of their school to settle down. It helps immensely if they know that they can get help whenever they want it.

Bear in Mind…

Family is important, much more so than language, or new culture, or any other aspect of relocation that could make a child’s life challenging. A supportive family can help a child eventually overcome the distress caused by relocation. Remember, kids don’t always need solutions, they just need to share. Just listen, empathize, and love your child.

By Dr Punnada Sulaiman, Pediatrics (Child and Adolescent Psychiatry) department of Samitivej Sukhumvit Hospital

Editor’s note: This article is sponsored content from Samitivej International Children’s Hospital, and it is reprinted here with permission of the hospital.

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