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Expat kids going out into the cold

by Hilly van Swol-Ubrich

The migrating season has returned upon us, the typical time of the year when questions are asked around the kitchen table: " Do we want to take on this assignment?" Be it that this major step in one's life needs careful consideration in any case - these times and in particular this year we need to approach the issues of international mobility with even more care. In times of geo-political unrest, yes even crisis, many corporations have had to evacuate their expat families. These families are for the most part not willing to accept another posting and the other potential candidates are reluctant to accept the offer when they have family. Here comes the problem: 45% of the expat population has children and the typical age range is 5-12.
Whereas in the past everyone banked on the mythical flexibility of the children, a new awareness has appeared that the children's aspects of an international move need to be incorporated.
Families often find that time quickly runs out right before the big moving day. With the immediate needs for boxes to be packed, and good-byes to be made, there is little time left to search for adequate ways to prepare the children. The young ones often find themselves in a transitional whirlwind that can leave them confused and frustrated with the uncertainties ahead.
Parents, projecting their hopes and aspirations on the children, most often deny the concerns felt by the child . "Yes, you will have to learn a new language, but you will be fine" - "Sure, you will go to a new school, but you will make friends" - "No, we can not take the dog- but Benny will be happy with this new family" - "Changes?- Many, but do not fret!". Not wanting to alarm, parents tend to gloss over these issues without making them more tangible for a child.

Multiple change:
Naturally the personality and the developmental stage will vary from one child to another. Their individual needs, preferences, openness and coping skills will differ, but there is a challenge to be met even by the most flexible of children. Lets not forget: a move involves more than just changing schools, there are new systems in place, other learning styles. On top comes the total loss of reference for the child; the loss of friends. When moving abroad this is topped by the challenges of a foreign language, a new cultural environment, a house which is not yet a home, in a period where the child is still searching its own identity. It is therefore not uncommon to see the child react in its own individual way to these multiple changes.

What to look out for- the implications:
Anger, a sense of helplessness, plain resentment are expressions of unresolved grief of the children. Another observed behaviour is an extreme passive attitude towards the move and the new cultural environment.
Other children driven by fear of remaining an outsider, urgently want to "put themselves on the map" and end up being qualified as a difficult child, or even hyper active.
Children may feel hesitant to discuss their struggles with their parents:
- out of concern adding another problem on their shoulders where the child observes that the parent(s) are juggling many relocation issues as it is
- or due to the initial denial of potential problems prior to the move.

A child friendly questionnaire is freely available online under "www.CONSULTus.net/expatkids/welcome.htm" it encourages the child to reflect and express its associations about the upcoming move and helps to facilitate the internal family communication. The document is part of an ongoing survey and parents are encouraged to participate by sending in the parents questionnaire which is available on line as well.

Virtual Community
Staying in touch, searching relevant information, sharing experience are universal needs. For mobile children the internet has become an important tool to do just that. The (non commercial) website: Ori-and-Ricki.net is specially designed for Expat Kids. It features special sections where kids write about their experiences abroad. Other areas cover: country specific information, great links, recommended books, etc. Ori, the migrating bird together with his newly found friend Ricki host this website. They not only make easy identification figures but are accessible by E-mail, so kids can ask questions, share their resources or submit their contributions.

Empower the expat kids and you empower the expat family. Your feedback is welcomed, please contact Hilly van Swol at: [email protected]

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