Join me and my young, South African family as we accompany my husband to Kuala Lumpur for a 3 year contract.

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Helping the kids to cope emotionally

Moving to a foreign country for a few years can be daunting thought, and especially more so for children as they don't quiet understand the concept completely until you've actually arrived and have been here for some time. Then the adventure and holiday wears off and the reality kicks in and they don't always know how to handle certain situations.

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If I had written this post a month after arriving here, it would be a very depressing, very sad post and that would not have helped anyone at all. So now, after being here for nearly 6 months, I can guide you through some of our ups and downs with our two girls and how they each coped differently to the move.

Firstly, let me explain that Bubs is 3 and Poppit is 8. And they each had completely different emotional experiences in the move here and in settling down. And, as children are all different emotionally, you may be able to relate to only part of this as your child/ren might experience different feelings.

From the moment we decided to come to Malaysia, we talked things over with both girls. We showed them photos and videos and we looked up all the things that we could do here on the Internet. We tried to make it seem like an adventure. When our furniture was packed up and we were sleeping on the blow-up mattresses on the floor, we let Bubs sleep in Poppit's bedroom with her. This helped them both as they were together and they seemed happier being closer.

We also made the trip to the airport and flying out an adventure too. We asked our friends and family not to come to say goodbye at the airport as we were concerned about emotions and I didn't want the girls to see the "sad" part of leaving.

So fast forward 6 months and we are at this stage:

Bubs - Age 3:
This was her first international flight and she coped fairly well. Although the excitement was just too much, she eventually fell asleep a few hours into the flight and I could get a few winks too. By the time we had connected through Singapore and arrived in KL, sorted things out with the agents and house owner and been to the shops to get a few essentials, Bubs was completely finished and promptly passed out on the cold, tiled floor at 5pm. Bright eyed and bushy tailed again at 3am due to jetlag, she and I sat in the lounge watching Barbie movies. There is unfortunately nothing you can do to make a 3 year old go back to sleep so it was a moment of insanity for the both of us. Thank goodness it only lasted the one night and by the next evening she was back into the swing of things.

Hubcap started work 2 days after arriving and the girls were due to start school 4 weeks later, it became apparent that the girls were super bored. With not knowing anyone here, we were all bored and homesick and had lots and lots of cabin-fever. With me and the two girls bouncing around an empty house all day long, there were moments I felt like giving up. But apart from that, we did manage to find a few playgrounds and activities for some mornings.

With the excitement and anxiety perhaps of the move, Bubs started having toilet accidents almost constantly and it has only recently got better, say, around 5 months of being here. She also gets very hot and bothered and becomes winy and lethargic due to the heat. So, we manage it by doing activities or sight seeing in the morning and home at lunch time before the severe crankiness sets in and makes us all grumpy. I never plan more than 1 activity per day now.

Settling into school was not too bad for Bubs. She's been going to school/day care since she was 7 months old so she knows the drill by now. I was impressed at how well she adjusted to wearing a uniform and she manages to get it on most mornings now without an argument. Although I must say that she is still a "Saffa" at heart as she has a habit of taking her shoes off after class and running around the school barefoot, which causes much confusion with other parents. I'm at the point now where I just leave her to do it and I ignore the stares of horror from other people.

Must just add that I was phoned by the school nurse about 5 hours into the first day at school to say that Bubs had vomited and I was to fetch her immediately. Turned out that she was so confused and disorientated after waking up from her nap time that she made herself so upset that she vomited all over her teacher. (Great first impression, I know!) At the end of the day, they are still small people and they will have wobblies for the first 4 - 6 weeks of starting school. I try to take things in my stride as best as possible. 

She still sleeps in Poppit's room now and although she has her own bedroom, she just feels more comforted being with big sister. Luckily big sister doesn't mind (for now).

Otherwise it seems that it was easier for Bubs to settle as she is smaller and as long as mom, dad and big sister are together then we'll be okay. And every so often we try to take her somewhere for an energy release, like riding bikes in the park.

Now, Poppit's emotional settling was another story all together:

Poppit, Age 8:
From the minute we told her about our move to Malaysia, I could see the cogs turning over at lightning speed in her brain. She's not a very verbal child who talks before thinking, so I could see she took a while to process the information.

Making the move seem like an adventure definitely helped all of us. And Poppit was so brave and never once showed any form of sadness before we left. She was also a star on the plane and settled down to her movie and dinner with ease, even wearing the eye mask for sleeping.

After Dad started work however, the wheels started to come off for Poppit: The adventure and holiday was over and now she was frustrated stuck here with Mom and little sister. She started asking about her friends in South Africa and started acting out due to boredom.

As I mentioned above, those 4 weeks before school started were hell for all of us. I tried really hard to summon the fairies of patience, but some days I just ran out of the stuff, ending up in a pile of tears on the floor when both kids were acting out. Screaming and shouting do not work and as much as you need to be calm and understanding with them, one shouting session sends you back down the ladder of emotional progress.

When school finally did start, she was placed into Year 4 due to her age. After a few weeks we could see she was unhappy and slowly started to withdraw into herself. Now Poppit is a shy, quiet child, but we noticed a drastic change in her general happiness. Root of the problem was that Year 4 was just too much - school work was far more advanced than back in SA and she was battling to grasp the concepts and complete work, and she could also not relate to her peers in class on an emotional level.
The crunch for me was when she said that she spends break time reading books on her own in the library as she doesn't have friends in class. My heart broke into pieces. This was my happy little giggling girl, who had a lovely group of friends back home and was doing well at school - what have we done?

I tried talking to Poppit about things but she's not great at expressing her true feelings so I also gave her a journal to write or draw in the evening before bed. The journal seemed to help as it offered her a way to escape. She would often draw pictures or write things down. I also used to find tiny, folded up letters to her friends back home. We're still working on the anxiety at night time before bed. This is a time when she really starts to feel sad, but we've been trying to talk things through. I also read that it's important to acknowledge your child feeling sad or alone and to tell them that it's okay to feel this way and how we can, together, work through the feeling. It's a work in progress still. One day at a time.

Okay, so fast forward a few weeks and together with the help of the teachers and support staff at school Poppit was placed back a year into Year 3 and was put into a class with a broader range of nationalities and a fantastic teacher, who is also a new expat here and also has 2 girls. Yay!
Poppit slowly returned to her normal, jolly self and has now made some friends. (Yay, happy dance!) She's even had a few play dates and I'm starting to meet the moms from her class who seem very nice and welcoming. She's also improving on her work and seems to be doing well. She still needs support work every week to catch up but is working hard and I'm starting to see that we'll be okay.

I think at the end of the day, every child copes differently to moving abroad and you just never know how they will cope until you actually move. I've received some excellent hints and tips from various teachers and other moms on how to help kids cope: (Again, these are suggestions and hints from a broad variety of parents who's experiences may be different than your own):

1. Don't go home for the first year. Some have said that it is too soon to go home as it makes them realise what they've missed and then you need to start over again when the holiday is over.

2. Call your house your home. It doesn't matter that you'll only be here for a short period of time. Let the kiddies know that this is home now. Try to make your home a more personal space, even if you don't have your own furniture. Put family pics up on the walls and help them to choose scatter cushions for the couch or their own placemats for the dinner table. Bubs insisted that I print out a certain family photo and she stuck it on her bedroom wall.

3. Don't buy them toys just to make up for them feeling crap. Yup, this is one that most parents have done.

4. Have weekly Skype calls to close friends and family. This has helped everyone and it's a good way for children to see that people do miss them and that they are only a phone call away.

5. Keep the routine. Ja, it's going to be wobbly for the first bit but keep the routines. It's what they know. Night time routines, bath routines, even hobbies that they know. Poppit loved her horse riding lessons back home, so we found her a school here where she continues to ride.

6. Talk to your child's teacher. If your child/ren are attending an International school, then there's a good chance that many of the teachers will be expats too. They will offer advice as they know what you're going through.

7. Get involved in your child's school. Become a class mom or get involved in school activities. Arrange a coffee morning at a nearby coffee shop to meet some of the other moms. By meeting the other parents in your child's class you can start making your own friends and then arrange play dates and coffee mornings. Playdates seem to help kids and parents alike.

8. Plan outings as a family. Look for interesting local attractions and try to make it an adventure of discovering new places. Give the kids a choice of places to visit and let them choose one, putting them in charge and making them feel like an important part of the family.

9. Accept that the school academic level in your new country might be different to that of your home. As mentioned above, it was only until Poppit started school here that we saw how big the education gap was between here and SA. Be open minded to the idea that your child might have to ' repeat' a certain year. Remember that the International schooling standards are higher in general so talk to the teachers and make decisions based on your child's ability.

10. And lastly, stop feeling guilty! We put our children's happiness ahead of our own most of the time and that leaves nothing for us. A few people have told me that the kids adapt and settle quicker than us adults - average of 4 months for a child to settle, whereas adults are at an average of 6 months.
Take things one day at a time, and know that if everything falls apart emotionally today, tomorrow will be a fresh new start.

More helpful advice from the websites below:

Until next time

Claire X

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Things I'm missing about South Africa

Almost 6 months here and I'm starting to miss home. I can't say that I'm homesick and feeling miserable, but there are many things that I'm wishing I could pack into an imaginary bag and teleport here immediately. I've not put them into order of importance, just things that I've thought of over the last few weeks:

1. Our family dog:
This was the biggest decision we had to make before coming to Malaysia. She is 13 years old and has a bad heart. We decided, after discussing with vets, friends and family, that she would go and live with my parents and their dog while we are in Malaysia. She's loving the retirement home back in SA and she loves Granny's dog to bits, so it has worked out for the best for her. Sometimes I say hello to her when we Skype home.

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2. Our Family and Friends back home:
Now this is an obvious one. Our family and friends are really missed. And more so because you can't phone them up and invite them over for pizza at a moment's notice. We have made some lovely friends here, many from all over the world, and we are all in the same boat and so we all understand what it's like to be 'alone'. In a way they have become our temporary family, and we all help each other out when needed. I know that it is difficult for our friends and family back home but thanks to Skype and Facebook we can stay connected more often.

3. Buttermilk rusks:
Strangely enough I missed rusks more than biltong at first. Now I've tried a recipe to make my own. Wasn't very successful but I'll keep trying.

4. Biltong:
Aah, yes! We brought our biltong maker with us and have made a few bits, but just wish I could quickly pop to the local Pick 'n Pay to grab some,  and not have to wait 4 days for our home made batch to dry out.

5. Driving in South Africa:
Everyone back home moans about how badly people drive there. It is nothing, and I mean NOTHING, compared to the driving chaos here in KL. I would gladly swap a Jo'burg taxi driver for one of the guys here. You need eyes all around your head plus an ability to keep a 1cm gap between you and the car in front otherwise someone will cut in front of you. And don't let me get started on the word "merge" - it simply does not apply here. But I have learnt the art of patience whilst driving here and I sometimes have to drive like they do otherwise I'd cause an accident if I obeyed the basic road rules. Certainly not for the faint hearted.

6. Friendly shop assistants and cashiers:
I like to say hello, thank you and goodbye when I visit a store. Perhaps it's just a South African 'thing' that we do. Over here you are lucky if you get a 'hello' or a 'goodbye' from a cashier. Many store employees will say 'welcome' to you when you first enter the store but generally the cashiers don't really talk to you. Over the last few months, some of the cashiers at the grocery store have started to recognize me so they say hello but we're working on it. I think perhaps it's a cultural thing here and maybe they feel shy.

7. Boerewors:
Aaargh! The heartache! Just like biltong, you can only find boerewors if you know who to ask. I'm off to the Blue Cow butchery here in a few days time to get me some. Need a boerie roll now!
I am trying very hard to convince our butcher in the non-halal section of our grocery store that he needs to start making this. I've even written down the name and the ingredients for him.

8. Letting the kids play outside:
Of course our girls go outside and play, but certainly not like they did back home. High temperatures and mosquitoes are very annoying and Poppit has already had heat exhaustion once before so we tend to only go out for short spurts at a time.

9. Open doors and windows:
I miss leaving the doors wide open and letting the girls come in and out of the garden as they please. With the ever pesky super quiet demon mozzies out and about, if I left the doors open for even a minute then I'd have hours of mozzie swatting after that. And if I open the window while I'm cooking then the flies descend. Oh yes and it's so hot outside that the aircon's are on inside all the time so wouldn't want the cooler air wasted now do we?

10. Drinking tap water:
Although we have a contraption that filters all the incoming water to our home, I don't really trust it. So, we don't drink the tap water at all. Which means a run to the 7-eleven if we run out of bought water. And it happens more often than not as we all drink a lot more water here due to the heat. Plus, every year there are a few dozen cases of Typhoid so best to be safe.

11. Not having to worry about mosquito's:
Here we have super quiet mozzies that creep up on you all day and all night and all year long. They are demons and I hate them more than anything. When we first arrived Bubs was being bitten about 3 times a day. They seem to love her blood. Now we have learnt and we have a stock pile of mozzie repellent all over the place, plus extra mozzie zappers in the house. Dengue fever is a big worry and when the rainy season comes we are even more cautious, and Bubs wears long pants for school to cover the legs.

12. The Bushveld:
My heart definitely belongs in Africa. The sounds, the smells and the sheer bliss of being in the bush makes me happy. I know that will be the first place I go when we go back home for a holiday.

13. Clean(ish) public toilets:
Yes I know, public toilets are generally terrible places all over the world, but oh my word I have seen some interesting stuff here. I'll spare you the details but note to self: Carry tissues with you at all times as there is often no supply of this. Use the most powerful anti-bacterial wipes you can find and clean toilet before use (this also applies to shoe prints on toilet seats which is very common). And wear the biggest pair of platform shoes you can find - due to the water puddles on the floor from the water sprayers that many people use. Generally public toilets in the bigger shopping malls are better and drier, but you'll need a strong stomach for many others.