by Hannah Flatman
We enjoyed setting up home in Brazil again. We had returned to our host country after a year away, eager to settle back into life at home. Discovering all their old toys felt a bit like Christmas for my children.
However, as gently and slowly as we took things, our little ones were sometimes overwhelmed by newness and change. They had forgotten quite a lot of the life they had lived here pre-pandemic. Surely this latest transition would be easier because my husband, the kids, and I were desperately looking forward to coming back ‘home’ to our serving country after the pandemic. And we are professional movers! I can’t count the number of cross-cultural transitions we’ve navigated our three- and five-year-olds through over the past years: Europe, Latin America, and Africa.
Our preschooler had gotten past the phase of bed wetting and middle-of-the-night visits to Mum and Dad’s room. However, accidents began occurring fairly frequently and were accompanied by nightmares, a tantrum or two, and a refusal by one of our TCKs to speak anything but their maternal language for a time.
After frantically Googling ‘regression behaviour in young children in transition,’ it was a comfort to find that whilst it is exhausting, frustrating, and embarrassing (especially during long flights!), regression is also totally normal. If we expect tantrums from all young children as they learn to regulate their emotions and express themselves, how much more should we expect regression from young children in transition? This is especially true for cross-cultural transitions.
By regression, I mean temporarily reverting back to a younger or needier way of behaving. Perhaps a young child is using a pacifier again. Or they become clingy when they had been more independent, especially at bed times and goodbyes. A toddler who was speaking might revert to babbling. Children might become fussy about eating or refuse food at meal times. You might hear increased whining and stalling. Bed wetting might begin again.
Our experiences taught us to anticipate a toddler or young child’s regression on some developmental milestones in the weeks and months before, during, and after transition. It is a normal reaction to a big adjustment to their new environment.
When we expect regression, we can remember to allow margin in our full schedules. Parenting a child going through regression, even if short-lived, is intense and sometimes isolating. It often comes at a time when you want to focus on language learning, starting your new ministry, or just working out essential life skills like how to use public transport and where to buy veg.
Regression may mean you have little energy for anything beyond the demands at home for longer than you expected. If you are a cross-cultural worker returning to your host culture from a time of Sending Country Assignment, your little ones may each take different time frames to adjust and settle back in – just as they would on arriving for the first time.
If this is your family’s first term of service, you’re probably wanting to make a good impression on new colleagues. Demanding perfect behaviour from our little ones (which usually means silence and politeness) in an attempt to validate our ministry or earn respect from our colleagues puts a huge pressure on our family.
When we expect perfection in our TCKs’ behaviour, we may be unconsciously teaching them that they need to hide their emotions, that mistakes are inexcusable, and that it is only acceptable to express (or feel) positive emotions. Let’s not project onto young children in transition the damaging idea that they compromise their parent’s spiritual witness, ministry, or family’s reputation when they demonstrate regression behaviour. People understand that acting out is normal from any toddler, even if they don’t understand the unique pressures of families with a globally mobile lifestyle.
So how do we help our little ones navigate transition and help our whole family navigate our toddler’s regression behaviour? How do we survive and thrive as parents of toddlers in transition? Below I’m sharing four ideas based on our own experiences.
1. Practicing Forbearance
In Ephesians 4:2 Paul exhorts the church to ‘be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.’ Bearing with our little ones in the midst of their transition-induced tantrums encompasses much more than just being patient and putting up with them. It is a choice to forgive, not to take offense, and most of all to love whilst acknowledging the real grievances and trials.
It is much easier to be patient and forbearing with our children when we are rested, in our own culture and home, with a well-established support network around us. In cross-cultural transitions so much is stripped away from us as parents and TCK caregivers that we are more vulnerable. We are often experiencing the disorientations and frustrations of culture shock along with our family. Regression behaviour in our little ones can be difficult to cope with when we want to make good first impressions in our communities, ministries, and churches.
I was once told that it usually takes 3-12 months for children to adapt following a transition. Anything outside this window does not necessarily mean that the settling in journey is not going smoothly, or that our little ones are failing to adapt. For example, transitions may take longer or regression behaviour reoccur where there are a series of transitions involved over a number of months or years. However, if the regression behaviour is not short-lived, or if a caregiver is concerned, then do seek professional advice.
2. Transition Preparedness
Gradually introduce elements of the new culture in the lead up to a cross-cultural transition. This can be as simple as a weekly attempt at making a dish from the new culture, language learning through games and apps, or finding out about cultural practices, special days, or celebrations in our host nation and joining in where possible. These may seem like small steps, but they build excitement about trying new things and can help the family prepare emotionally for departure.
3. Creating Consistency
Even when we are not going through transitions, I try to give my kids a preview of the day over breakfast. We talk about what is going to happen that day and when, often using meal times as references, because most young children are still coming to terms with the concept of time. So I might say, ‘After breakfast we will… and then just before lunch you can…’ That way they know what to expect. We also have a weekly schedule pinned to our fridge – the more pictures the better! We move a magnet along to show where we are in the week.
As soon as possible in the transition, try to establish routines like mealtimes and bedtimes. This helps little ones to feel more secure. We can make our homes warm and safe spaces so that our little ones can relax, be themselves, and have time away from others’ eyes. This could be achieved on Sending Country Assignment, where families don’t always have their own space, with a framed photo or two that comes with them or bed sheets or a toy from home. The child can help pack a small bag of things which are important to them to take. Set aside some time each day to lavish attention and affection on each child. These and other habits can help our children feel at home, even in transition.
4. Emotional Preparation
Giving our TCKs the emotional vocabulary to express how they feel helps alleviate some of their frustrations in being unable to communicate their needs. We have a weekly family check-in on Sunday afternoons where we all talk about, or draw, how our week has been. Mum and Dad share something as well! We hope this practice will help our little ones build emotional vocabulary and foster open and trusting relationships where they can express any feeling to us. Emotion cards can help with this.
Remember that God is gracious to parents. He cares for the whole family even as he calls the parents to serve Him. Doubts may creep in about the truth of that during lonely moments when we are reeling from our toddlers’ tantrums, attempting to get our little one to eat, or changing wet bed clothes at 3am, again. It is a comfort to me to remember that He sees and knows our parental struggles and fear, as well as our mum/dad guilt. God is alongside us and our little ones in all those moments. His constant presence is our home through all transitions.
For additional practical advice from Lauren Wells, see this article.
My story for young TCKs and MKs in transition, A Fish out of Water, is a good conversation starter for parents who want to guide their little ones through cross-cultural moves and culture shock.
Hannah Flatman writes about culture shock, transitions, and raising resilient Third Culture Kids. She has been serving as a missionary in NE Brazil since 2005 and is mum to two little ones whom she has already guided through several significant cross-cultural transitions. Hannah is responsible for the member care of short-term members of Latin Link Brazil and also serves in South Sudan, where she and her husband have an ongoing commitment to the Ngok Dinka community in Abyei.