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