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Global Parenting: Adjusting to life as a small person in a big city

Updated: Nov 2, 2019

You probably, like me, have relocated to Mexico City. You have possibly done it with children. And if either or both of the former are true, you have almost certainly experienced relocation stress. At best it was minimal. At worst, you are still wondering if it was the right decision. There is a reason that moving often snags the top spot in life’s most stressful events. The logistics, bureaucracy and expense; the farewells to loved ones and loved jobs; ‘digestive’ adjustment, environmental stress and possibly learning another language. If you are a monolingual-lifer like me, the last one is the real kicker.


There is a phrase that gets bandied about, ‘Children are so adaptable’. It is partly true. They do adjust in time and overall they usually do so better than their expatriate parents. However this has a sneaky way of morphing into the utter myth that being a child provides some sort of buffer, if not immunity, to the stress of moving. Relocating takes a toll on all children, even young ones. In fact, an epidemiological study in a journal of psychosomatic illness found that the seemingly harmless’life event of relocation to a foreign country led to higher levels of the neuropeptide VIP and consequently higher rates of allergies, labelling moving abroad as a ‘health risk’, (Herberth, et at., 2007). Yikes!


So what does ‘adjustment’ stress look like in children? When I first moved to Mexico City my usually tranquil daughter barely made it through a meal without a meltdown. “I. Don’t. Want. THAT. Spppoooooooooonnnnnnnnnn!” Cue the tears and her entire meal being thrown on the floor. I could have given her all the spoon options in the world and it would not have made make a lick of difference because it was never really about the spoon. It was a relocation topped with a new sibling, an absent father (sucked into the work vortex), and a frankly unhappy mother. Her behaviour was predictably atrocious.


That is a fairly classic presentation for a small child under stress. Meltdowns, defiance, tantrums, lost skills and regressive behaviours such as clinginess or lost toileting skills. For older children and teens, they get sad, mad, and irritable, and might be emotionally distant or needy. All ages are likely to experience changes in sleep and eating patterns.


So how can we help our children adjust as quickly and smoothly as possible? Here are my three golden rules for supporting children through this inevitably rocky period.


1) Take care of yourself


The temptation:

To let the stress of moving come out in crankiness, arguing, eating a bunch of junk food and barely sleeping.


The recommendation:

The foundations of self-care are very simple: sleep enough, eat healthy food and do not skip meals, exercise, and if you can manage it, get some nature in.


The explanation:

Family adjustment impacts children’s adjustment. If the captain of the ship is flailing then the first big wave is going to rock everyone.


Putting it into practice:

· Sleep is king. If you have problems falling or staying asleep – address this. There are very effective interventions available. You can start with online resources and if that does not help, consider seeing a psychologist.

· Do not skip meals. Reduced calories and nutrient-poor food will effect your mood.


2) Honour their emotions


The temptation:

To focus on how exciting the move is and how lucky they are as a way of jollying them along into a positive mindset.


The recommendation:

Welcome their emotions: the good, the bad and the ugly.


The explanation:

Moving elicits a range of emotions that may seem contradictory. When we focus only on the positive children take the message that they SHOULD feel this way. When they do not, they feel confused and ashamed. The message they receive is that their feelings are ‘wrong’. They stop sharing how they feel and their stress comes out in other ways.


Putting it into practice:

· For younger children, focus on simple labelling and validation, “Oh you are angry!”; or if unacceptable behaviour is about to follow, “I think you want to throw your breakfast and I cannot let you do that, so I’m going to move that away, but I can see how upset you are”. The younger they are, the fewer words you use.

· For older children, highlight the positive but also provide space for your child’s feelings. For example, “Next week you’re starting a new school. I think you’re teacher is really nice and we’ve picked what we think is the best possible school for you. But I know starting a new school can be tough. How do you think it’s going to go?”


3) Prioritise Routine


The temptation:

To be spontaneous and make the most of all Mexico City has to offer.


The recommendation:

Implement routines and structure as soon as possible.


The explanation:

Routines make the world predictable, and predictability creates a sense of stability. When everything has gone topsy-turvy, this can greatly reduces stress.


Putting it into practice:

· Set regular sleep and wake times.

· Eat family meals together.

· Maintain rituals from your previous hometown.

· Avoid instigating additional changes for several months.

· For older children and teens – socialising is really important. Try to work this into their routine.


Like the phoenix rising out of the ashes, relocating abroad can be a positive growth experience for children, making them more resilient, confident and socially skilled. My family’s transition into Mexico was not a seamless process but we got there. It helped me to remember that the parent-child bond is not solely forged in the good times. After a day of meltdowns, my incredibly independent daughter would crawl into my bed, often pushing her nose up against mine and cradling my face in her hand. She would stare lovingly into my eyes before drifting off to sleep. And it is in these times, when children have been overwhelmed, over-stimulated and unable to cope, that they learn your love is bigger than their behaviour. The best gift we can give our children is not to protect them from hard emotions; but to show them that there is a parent who is bigger, stronger, wiser and kinder than they are; and that if they need to fall apart we will be there to catch them.



References

Herberth, G., Weber, A., Irina, L., Roder, S., Herbarth, O., …Heinrich, J. (2007). The stress of relocation and neuropeptides: an epidemiological study in children. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 63(4), 451-452.

Sivatte, I., Bullinger, B., Canamero, M., & Martel, M. (2019). Children of Expatriates: Key factors affecting their adjustment. Department of Human Resources and Organizational Behaviour, IE University, Spain.

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