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I Was a Beijing 'Brown Owl' - And Other Travel Tales
by Robin Pascoe, author of Culture Shock!: Successful Living Abroad - a Wife's Guide
Reprinted with author's permission from the Vancouver Sun
Children do not "move" well. True, they eventually get on with their young lives, but only when parents are pro-active and ready to do whatever it takes to integrate their children into their new surroundings. If that means driving, driving, driving, or waking up to a gang of kids asleep on the living room floor, or becoming a school volunteer, do it.
Unfortunately, a move usually means one - or both - parents become by necessity totally consumed by a new job. Who has the time or energy for the kids? But parents must try to find both or the familial culture shock induced by the move will kick into overdrive and the dinner table will become almost a war zone. That's if the family ever has a chance to share a meal.
I am the mother of two in a family which spent 15 years moving around the world with the Canadian foreign service; I am familiar with the challenges children - and their parents - face when uprooted, especially when uprooted regularly. I put all that I learned from my experiences and from the experiences of other parents, psychologists and teachers in a book and was able to identify the familial culture shock that can set in when a move causes a major shift in family dynamics. That shock is collective, but is generated by each family members's individual cultural shock: No one is able to communicate well with another.
Typically: a teenager will react to a move with the constant refrain, "You're ruining my life!" and by holing up in their new bedroom, earphones providing a safe cocoon of sound; Mom will interfere too much in her children's lives, because she has lost control of so much of her own life that her children are the one area she can control and does; younger children act up, because they cannot articulate their homesickness; and Dad - if he's the working partner who prompted the move - is understandably so distracted or frustrated by his new job that he works late to avoid family scenes or redirects his anger and guilt on to his family.
What causes all this? Culture shock experts point to unresolved grief and I happen to agree which is why I actively encourage closure. I helped my children to not only say goodbye to friends and places, but forced them to resolve outstanding disputes so they didn't grow up thinking they could always just walk away from life's unpleasantness.
Everyone is grieving the loss of the previous life - where they felt settled, had friends and community, and maybe careers - and experience many of the same stages of grief associated with the death of a loved one. Denial just further delays healthy adjustment.
Denial and anger have to be worked through to allow family members to reach a comfort zone and get on with life. That means if a recently relocated child is acting depressed or sullen - this can often be a hard call with teenagers - can't sleep or eat or is making to many visits to the school nurse, don't deny that something is up and maybe seek help. In all likelihood, that child would benefit from constant reassurance that family members are sharing the same feelings of unsettledness, each in their own way.
I learned to take action. Typically, my children, feeling they would never stay anywhere long enough, were reluctant to join clubs. I actively motivated them to do so anyway, even if their involvement required my involvement as a parent volunteer. (I was a Brown Owl in my daughter's Beijing Brownie troop.) I always encouraged friendsships, even when we knew they would be short term.
And one last tip: Before we went out on our last assignment to Seoul - which happened to conincide with threats by North Korea to turn South Korea into a nuclear fireball - I instigated regular family meetings. These gatherings gave all of us a change to air grievances, express fears and get our feelings about the move on our kitchen table. My husband and I were amazed by what we learned and could take the appropriate steps to alleviate some of the concerns and fears our children shared with us.