Transition Stress and TCKs: What does “normal” look like?

by Lauren Wells

“We haven’t seen our boy act like himself in over a year. We sometimes get glimpses of the fun, playful kid he used to be, but most of the time he’s like a shell of his old self. We don’t know where the kid we knew went.”

Fifteen months earlier, these parents had moved across the globe to a new country and culture. Their oldest son had started attending a local school while the younger siblings who weren’t yet school age stayed home. 

“We knew it would be a big transition for him,” they said. “We worried when he seemed to get more and more withdrawn, but we kept telling ourselves this was the normal transition stress everyone warned us about. But it’s been over a year now and it’s just gotten worse.” 

I wish I could tell you that this is the only time I’ve had a conversation like this with parents, but it’s not. The phrase “we figured it was just transition stress” is one I’ve heard many times in my work with hundreds of parents. 

When my colleagues and I work with families prior to a move or to train schools or organizations about family care, a topic we cover is how to distinguish between  “normal” transition stress and when it has gone beyond that. This preventive approach keeps normal transition stress from growing into a long-term state of emotional unhealth which will eventually turn into a crisis. 

So, what is normal transition stress for children? At what point should adjustments be considered because the transition stress has gone beyond a healthy limit? Knowing how to distinguish between healthy transition bumps and long-term adjustment issues is a critical part of preventive care. 

Red Zone/Green Zone

When my company (TCK Training) talks about transition stress for Third Culture Kids, we use the concept of Red Zone/Green Zone. When we’re in the Red Zone, our brain is flooded with stress hormones. This isn’t concerning for a short period of time, and in small doses it can actually be part of resilience building. While a developing brain shouldn’t be exposed to those stress hormones too consistently or for too long, during a major transition it’s normal for everyone to be in the Red Zone for a while.

What the Red Zone looks like for children/teens:

  • Uncharacteristic behavior challenges 
  • Being overly emotional
  • Appearing down or withdrawn
  • Being extra clingy to a parent 
  • Developmental reverting (accidents after being potty trained, sleep regressions, using baby talk, needing a comfort item they had grown out of, etc.) 
  • Development of new stress-induced habits (hair twisting, biting lips or skin, etc.) 
  • Not enjoying activities that used to bring joy 
  • Lack of ability to learn new concepts (this often shows up as  difficulty meeting academic milestones, such as reading, if those concepts are introduced while the child is in the Red Zone, or lower grades than the child’s typical performance)
  • Long periods of numbing/distracting behaviors (e.g. spending hours on an electronic device, consistently choosing to read for hours instead of spending time with family/other children) 

While these behaviors are all normal during a transition season, some behaviors require immediate support even during the normal Red Zone window of transition: 

  • Any sort of self-harm 
  • Suicidal ideation (or any statements that imply that they wish they weren’t alive)
  • Extreme physical aggression toward others 
  • A pattern of undereating or overeating 
  • Depressive or anxious symptoms that interfere with daily functioning

If your child experiences these symptoms at any point it is important to seek immediate professional mental health support.

The Green Zone

In the midst of Red Zone seasons like major transitions, planting “Green Zone moments” is important. This brings the child’s brain momentarily above water. While they still may be mostly in the Red Zone, consistently bringing in Green Zone activities can speed their progress out of the Red Zone.

Green Zone moments can include: 

  • Body movement (going for a walk, playing a sport, etc.) 
  • Anything rhythmic – rhythm regulates the brain (music, dancing, coloring, etc.) 
  • Talking about why this transition feels so hard (allowing them to share and/or giving them language for why they’re feeling this way) 
  • Laughing 
  • Deep breathing 
  • Experiencing something that feels physically comforting (a favorite food, a cozy blanket, a special treat, etc.) 
  • Quality time with a parent, sibling, or close friend 

How Long is Too Long?

After a major transition it is common for children to be primarily in the Red Zone for three months. During this time it is important to implement Green Zone moments for/with them. After three months, we typically see that children have fewer Red Zone days/moments. They begin to act more like their normal selves, trending toward a more consistent Green Zone state. When this is happening, we begin to see that: 

  • They can identify friends they like to play with 
  • Getting ready for school in the morning isn’t as difficult  
  • They talk about things they’re looking forward to
  • They want to join activities that brought them joy in the past or that tap into their skills or talents 
  • They are beginning to feel more confident about how to succeed in school
  • They seem to have a more positive outlook 
  • They are laughing and smiling more 
  • They are doing “Green Zone moments” without prompting 

Most often at around 6-9 months after a transition, the stress has eased and children are in the Green Zone more regularly.

What If It’s Not Getting Better?

The shift from Red Zone to Green Zone may seem slow and drawn out, and even in the best circumstances it can take time. If after six months a child doesn’t seem to be trending toward the Green Zone, we have moved beyond normal transition stress. At this point, professional support for the parents (and possibly the child as well) may be helpful. 

Shifts need to be made so that we can prevent the child going deeper into the Red Zone. The following questions can help determine factors that could be contributing to prolonged transition stress. You can begin making small shifts to see if they begin to make a difference. In the home, for example, you might schedule consistent one-on-one time with that child. In the environment, you might add an activity outside school hours that they would enjoy. 

In the Home

  • Are they receiving regular, positive attention from their parents? 
  • Do they feel they can talk about their emotions and feel heard and comforted? 
  • Do they feel physically safe? 
  • Are they sleeping well?
  • Does the family smile and laugh together often? 

In their Environment

  • Do they have access to activities that would give them Green Zone moments? 
  • Do they have potential friends in their class/school? 
  • Is their teacher a factor that is putting them in the Red Zone?
  • Are there specific stressors that they or you can pinpoint? 
  • Are there adults other than their parents investing in them?

Understanding the progression from Red Zone to Green Zone that happens during a transition season can help parents to monitor their children’s stress levels during times of change. Not only does this knowledge prevent children staying in the Red Zone for an unhealthy period of time, but it also gives parents strategies for improving family health and tools for making adjustments to get each family member on the right track if it doesn’t seem to be happening naturally.

There is so much hope in knowing what normal looks like and having tools to help your children when their transition stress goes beyond that point. To learn more about going through transitions of any kind, especially as a family, check out TCK Training’s self-directed Transitions Course.

Photo by Michał Parzuchowski on Unsplash

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Lauren Wells is the founder and CEO of TCK Training and the Unstacking Company and author of Raising Up a Generation of Healthy Third Culture Kids, The Grief Tower, and Unstacking Your Grief Tower. She is an Adult TCK who spent her teenage years in Tanzania, East Africa. She sits on the board of the TCK Care Accreditation as Vice Chair and is part of the TCK Training research team focusing on preventive care research in the TCK population.

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A Life Overseas is a collective blog centered around the realities, ethics, spiritual struggles, and strategies of living overseas. Elizabeth Trotter is the editor-in-chief.

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