Little Lives In Big Transitions: 14 Ways to Help Children Cope Better With Change

by Lisa McKay on March 12, 2015

It’s been five weeks since we said farewell to the house in Laos that we were still calling “new home” and boarded a plane to “Nana Papa home” in Australia. It’s less than a week now until we get on another plane that will take us to “ocean home” in Vanuatu—a place the kids and I have never even visited.

Confused?

Yeah, so are my kids.

Our little family has navigated a lot of transitions in the last four years. We moved houses while we were living in northern Laos. Then we moved down to the capital of Laos, Vientiane. And let’s not forget the two five-month sojourns I had to Australia to deliver our little boys, or the five months we spent here last year while my husband was receiving treatment for cancer.

Now we’re moving again, to Port Vila in Vanuatu.

I’m convinced this move is a good one for our family. That belief has helped ground me during this time of turmoil, but it hasn’t done much to buffer our children. I found it surprisingly painful this time around to uproot our three year old, Dominic, from a nurturing preschool in Laos, staff who adored him, and friendships that were just beginning to mean something. It hasn’t been easy for him, either. After all, we are not talking about a child who bobs along blithely on the choppy seas of change, but a child who had an epic meltdown yesterday because I parked a car somewhere different.

I know I’m not the only one out there struggling to figure out how to help my kids cope better with the huge changes that come along with living overseas. So, this month, I thought I’d share some of the things I’ve done with our kids recently.

1.  Read them stories about moving

A couple of months before leaving Laos, I started to introduce stories about moving into the bedtime routine. Boomer’s Big Day has been the clear favorite for my three year old, but Big Dan’s Moving Van, The Berenstain Bear’s Moving Day, A Kiss Goodbye and Augustine have also been good.

2.  Talked about moving

About three weeks before the move I started to talk about the process with the kids—the movers, the boxes, how we’d go on a plane to visit their grandparents, and then how we’d go to “ocean home”.

3.  Gave the new place a name

I was a bit stuck on this one, since we’d started calling our house in Laos “new home” when we’d arrived back there eight months earlier, and Dominic was still calling it that. We settled on “ocean home”.

4.  Let them pick something to pack

I let Dominic pick out one or two special things to take on the plane with us rather than shipping.

5.  Helped them say goodbye to important places and people

Every Friday, Dominic’s preschool staged little ceremonies to mark birthdays and farewells. So, on his last day at school, Dominic got to wear the “goodbye crown” and sit in the special chair at circle time. The teachers led the children in a farewell song, and the school had made and framed a big collage of photos featuring Dominic during his time there. After he was presented with this collage, Dominic was led around the circle of children and encouraged to give goodbye “high fives.”

Whenever we farewelled people or animals who had been important to us during our last week in country, I reminded Dominic that we were leaving and that we wouldn’t see them again for a long time. I wish I could say that Dominic entered into leave taking with great aplomb rather than covering his face with his hands and refusing to say goodbye to anyone (or our dog) with any degree of grace. Alas. But we did try.

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6.  Brought along familiar stories

I brought along some of both children’s favorite books. Having familiar stories to read before bed is one of the easiest (although not necessarily the lightest) ways to help create a sense of continuity and stability.

7.  Packed an “entertainment” kit

I packed a favorite toy or two, as well as some other small and light options for helping entertain kids. I’ve found all of the following to be very helpful: a small blow-up beach ball, balloons, crayons, bubbles, sidewalk chalk, matchbox cars, stickers, plastic laundry pegs, snacks like cheerios and raisons that they can pick up one by one, and (last, but certainly not least) an iPad and headphones for children.

8.  Went somewhere familiar in between old and new

We’ve spent several weeks here at my parent’s house in Australia in between leaving Laos and going to Vanuatu. My kids know and love this place, and I think that landing somewhere familiar after all the upheaval of the departure (and before all the “new” that’s coming) has been very stabilizing for them.

P_MG_61309.  Postponed other changes in existing routines

Dominic is three and a half years old and still sleeps with a pacifier. In fact, he prefers to sleep with at least four of them. I’d prefer he didn’t, but also know that right now is not the time to try to wean him off these little objects that he uses to self-soothe. The middle of a major life transition is not the time to try to toilet-train your child or make changes in other habits and routines.

10.  Made a map together

When we returned to Laos last year, I took a giant piece of cardboard from one of our packing boxes and started to make a map with the kids. Every time we went to a new place or house—the markets, the doctors, school, Katrina’s house, etc—we would come home and draw it on our map. We added to this map over the eight months we were there, and Dominic often asked to pull it out and talk about it. I’ll be making a new one in Vanuatu.

11. Assembled photo collages

I’m taking about 50 photos with us when we leave next week—pictures of family and extended family, some friends, and some of the adventures we had together in Laos. Soon after we get to Vanuatu, I’ll assemble a collage to put in the kid’s play space. I want them to have physical photos, down on their level, they can touch and talk about.

P108064112.  Made friends with families with kids

Trying to make friends (and help the kids meet other children) is a priority after ever move. If you can make friends with some families who have kids, you’ll be on your way to building a strong network of relationships in your new home.

13. Hired someone to help in our home

Living overseas often brings with it some unusual stressors and some unusual luxuries. Having help with the cleaning and laundry has allowed me to spend relatively more time focused on our children. It has also widened the circle of adults that our children know and love. I’ve tried it both ways now (during the first year of Dominic’s life I barely left his side). I’m much happier and I think it’s better for the kids when I involve other trusted adults in their care. It really does take a village to raise a child (at least, it seems to take a village to raise my children). When you live overseas most of your village is inaccessible on a practical level. The staff you hire to help in your house will become important figures in your new village.

P152005414.  Periodically left the kids in the care of other people

It’s tempting to try to buffer your kids from the stresses of change by keeping them close by all the time. It’s not ideal to land in-country and leave your kids in the care of people you don’t know on the second day there. On the other hand, it is good for your kids to learn, relatively quickly, that you can go away for an hour or two in this new place and come back again. Ironically, if you don’t leave your kids with anyone else for six months, you might be setting the stage for major separation anxiety issues when you do want to start spending time apart.

And, on that note, it’s time for me to go pick up the kids from their playtime.

I’d love to hear about your experiences and strategies, too.
Help us all learn from each other, and leave your thoughts or stories below!

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About Lisa McKay

Lisa McKay is a psychologist and the award-winning author of the memoir Love At The Speed Of Email, the novel My Hands Came Away Red, and several books on long distance relationships. She lives in Laos with her husband and their two sons.
  • Liz K

    such good ideas! We made a photo book of our home in Costa Rica for the boys to show friends, family, strangers in the grocery store their home. We also have found that being intentional about taking time for our little family, doing something special with just us has been helpful. We also were introduced to the picture book “When Africa was home” by the great people at Missionary Training International. It’s about a TCK who has to leave Africa for a time and then comes back.

    • Thanks, Liz!! I’m going to check out that book right now.

      • Liz K

        Something else I just thought of! We just got back from the DAR (debriefing and renewal program ) at MTI and they even debriefed with our two year old. They used the story of Noah’s ark to help the littlest ones understand the transition model. The kids identified with the animals on the ark, who had a home (settled), and then had to move onto the ark(unsettled) and then expereince the storm(chaos) and then got off the ark (resettling) and then that became home (settled). Such a concrete thing for such an abstract process.

        • Thank you for this super-helpful example!

  • Marilyn Gardner

    Brilliant post Lisa! Wish I had this when I had littles!

  • Richelle Wright

    Some say that moving with littles is easier than moving with biggers… I find these transitions hard, regardless.

    All excellent ideas!

    A few others we’ve found helpful:
    1) Including our kids in the process of finding new homes for our pets, favorite toys, etc., that couldn’t go with us. Although hard, it has also helped them to picture their kitty Sasha being loved on by other kids or to know that their tire swing still swirls and swings…
    2) Crying and laughing with our kids through the ups and downs of transitions – and letting them see that both emotions are normal – and maybe modeling how to handle those extremes. Being authentic – talking with my teens bout those things I find very scary about moving to a new place seems to encourage them to talk as well.
    3) Leaning hard into grace and praying much for discernment, especially in some of those challenging parenting moments – sometimes a hug or a tickle or a joke or a movie night with chocolate ice cream is needed more than correction. Other times, consequences must be lovingly enforced even though stress and transition does factor in to misbehavior/meltdowns.
    4) Making a moving plan/transition plan/timeline that is appropriate for the age level of our kids – so that they can see what is next… how soon… etc., and making sure that plan includes things to look forward to and not just the hard things. Sometimes that plan starts 6 months out with just a few major events – but more and more details are filled in as well. It also gives us things to pray for/through as a family.
    5) Get to know the young adult/singles/shorter-term community in your new place – they can be a great resource as well and sometimes are missing nieces and nephews (etc.) and can be amazing assets in that village it takes to help our global kids.

    • THANK YOU!! All really excellent additions, with some wise words in there for parents of older kids.

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