If you have a toddler or young child and you’ve moved overseas, you might have learned (as I am learning) that the adage that kids are resilient doesn’t mean that change doesn’t cost them. Most children might be generally adaptable, but many are firmly attached to valued routines and known, safe spaces. Moving comes at an energy and emotional cost to young children, just as it does to adults.
It’s been a week today since I arrived back in Laos after spending six months in Australia delivering our second child within easy reach of good hospitals. The maternal mortality rate in Laos still hovers in the shocking range of 1/49 (around 1/30 for women out in the villages without even access to basic health centers). Not even Lao women have their babies in Laos if they can easily afford to go to Thailand.
In April I left from Luang Prabang almost six months pregnant with a non-verbal 20-month old toddler in tow. I’ve returned to a new house in a new city (Vientiane) with a child who talks almost constantly, and who calls his grandparents house in Australia “home”. After six months of living with his Nana and Papa while his “Dada” came and went a couple of times on the “pane”, Dominic is understandably confused at the total upending of his world. He keeps asking for his grandparents, the green lawnmower, and to “go home.”
The first time this happened we were five hours into our flight to Bangkok. My husband, Mike, and I reminded him that we were going to Laos.
“To our new home,” Mike said brightly.
“We have two homes,” I said, equally brightly, secretly wishing I could comply with his demand to turn the plane around. “One in Australia and one in Laos.”
“No. One home,” Dominic said, staring us both down.
“Oh my child,” I said. “You are about to get very, very confused when it comes to home, for which I am truly sorry. But don’t worry. If you’re anything like me, around the time you turn 30 you’ll spend three years writing a memoir about this problem of home and it’ll all make a bit more sense.”
All flippancy aside, it’s been really hard to see Dominic struggle to figure out what’s happening and how much he misses his grandparents (and that damn green lawnmower). I have decades of practice at adjusting to these sorts of transitions myself, but watching my child missing his “home” is forcing me to acknowledge how much I, too, miss that home.
It’s also making me realize that I need to refresh my own knowledge related to helping young children deal with change. So, today, I offer you some thoughts on helping toddlers and young kiddos cope better with a massive change like an overseas move.
1. Start talking about the transition in advance: Give them some warning that change is coming. I talked to Dominic for at least two weeks about how Daddy had gone on the “pane” back to Laos after Alex was born, and he’d come back to get us and then we’d all go on the plane. Reading them books like The Berenstain Bears’ Moving Day can also help prepare them.
2. Create keepsakes: If you’re leaving people who’ve been really special in the lives of your child, create something special that’s linked to those people. Get them to give your child a keepsake (Dominic is now sleeping with the koala that his grandparents bought him in the airport). Create a small photo album, or do something else creative to help the child feel connected.
3. The phrase “new home” might help: Dominic was used to calling his grandparent’s house “home” so we started calling our place in Laos our “new home”. Now that we’re here, it’s seemed to help him to refer to “new home” “new highchair” “new bed” etc. Hopefully the “new” moniker will fade out of it’s own accord over time.
4. Expect your child to become more clingy and fearful: To a young child, the world is a big place filled with things that are hard to understand. They rely on things they recognize to make sense of everything else. After a move they may become clingy and fearful and act younger again. You might want to let them carry around their “love” objects more (e.g., if they love pacifiers but usually only have them in the crib, you might want to let them carry one around the house for a while). You should also …
5. Stick to familiar daily rituals (and create some if you don’t have many): Simple daily rituals like saying grace at mealtimes, reading stories before bed, picking out your clothes together, and watching familiar TV programs, can ground and calm your child and help them process change.
6. Give your child extra attention: I know this is challenging when you’ve just moved and there are 1001 things that need doing, but remind yourself to slow down and give your child lots of attention during the early days following a move. Put it on your to-do list (above sorting out boxes of clothes, etc.) if that helps.
7. Talk to those you’ve left behind on Skype and use photos strategically: We’ve found it helpful to have brief daily check ins via Skype with Nana and Papa during this initial week and showing him a familiar photo or two of him with his grandparents helped. We’ve also found it helpful to show him pictures of the green lawnmower on request. We haven’t found it helpful to flick through a lot of photos in quick succession from his time there. That only seems to upset him. Experiment and see what works.
8. If your child is going to be attending a new daycare or school, go and visit before the first day: Take your child to visit a new school at least once before their first day. Meet their teacher and let them see the classroom. Explain that they’ll be coming back to have fun there soon.
There’s more I could say but I’ll stop there for now. I’d love to hear from you on this. I know that many of you have done this before.
What have you found helpful or unhelpful when moving with toddlers or young children?
Lisa McKay – author, psychologist, sojourner in Laos