Moves interrupt habits, predictability, familiarity and, particularly for children and adolescents, friendships © Ryu Orn Unsplash

Expat’s lives: emotional challenges for children and adolescents
Moving is a source of richness but also of psychological suffering for children and adolescents. They need help to re-anchor in a new environment
1 Feb 2024

In Geneva, around 41.3% of the half a million inhabitants are foreigners, of which about 10% work for the United Nations and related agencies, permanent missions, intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations. Many relocate several times during their career, often with their families.

Moving to, and living in a multicultural city like Geneva, represents an incredible richness for children and adolescents who relocate with their parents. However, for some of them it can be a source of psychological suffering as often they don’t choose to move, they follow. 

Moving is one of the most stress-producing experiences even for adults and can be especially hard on children and adolescents. Moves interrupt habits, predictability, familiarity and, particularly for children and adolescents, friendships. It is difficult to be the new pupil at school, where everybody else seems to already have a best friend and safely belongs to a group of peers.

Due to this being such a common experience in Geneva, there are many international schools well equipped to integrate newcomers in a new environment. Still, the fact that the experience is common does not mean that it is easy for the children and adolescents to go through it. For the children, moves, especially frequent moves, can bring up uncomfortable feelings of anxiety, lack of self-worth, estrangement, inability to build and maintain relationships, a variety of physical symptoms as well as pre-existing, underlying pathologies, or previous traumatic experiences.

Parents usually detect the first signs of uneasiness because of drop in grades or behavioral problems at school. This is not surprising if we think that children and adolescents must get used to different curricula, where they can be ahead in certain subjects but behind in others, and often to a new language as well. They may experience very different emotional states that range from stress and anxiety to boredom. The signs of psychological suffering may manifest also through physical symptoms such as change in appetite and sleep patterns, unidentified tummy discomfort or through mood swings, depressive movements and social withdrawal. These symptoms always require a medical check to exclude physical causes.

Children and adolescents spend a lot of emotional energy in settling and academic results are not on top of their priorities © Vitolda Klein Unsplash

Behaviors in reaction to a move vary according to the age of the children. Youngsters, who are already trying hard to separate from their parents, may regress and become even more dependent because they feel threatened by the new environment. Adolescents, for whom the peer group is extremely important for their own self-esteem and ability to relate to society, may become very vocal, resisting and protesting before the move. Once the move has occurred, they can express aggressiveness, rage and resistance to authority figures, or social withdrawal and apathy as they believe they have lost control over their lives.

At the core of these expressions of discomfort lies a deep sense of uprootedness away from what children and adolescents considered, their home and culture. This manifests into a consequent loss of connection with their inner self and their resources. It is necessary therefore to help them re-anchor to their intimate world and conceive home not exclusively as a geographic place but as a central element in their souls which cannot be taken away from them, wherever they live. Only then will they feel safe and strong enough to fully seize the extraordinary opportunities offered by living in a multicultural environment.

Sessions of psychotherapy, mindfulness or meditation appropriate to the age of the child or the adolescent, can help activate the inner resources to compensate for the apparent chaotic conditions relating to a move and restore a healthy relationship with themselves and with the environment. For uprooted global children who may feel at a loss, centering within themselves acquires particular importance.

During this process of re-anchoring, patience is the magic word. A lot of patience that parents must have towards themselves, without reproaches about the move, and towards their children for the way they express their emotions. For a period, parents may consider lowering the expectations related to their children’s performance at school and understand that their children are spending a lot of emotional energy in settling and that academic results are not at the top of their priorities.

Finally, while adults tend to be busy with the practicalities of a relocation, it is a good idea to consider reaching out to a professional who can help psychologically prepare children and adolescents for the move before it happens. It will be easier then, although not painless, for children and adolescents to say goodbye to their friends and their home and to react appropriately to the stress that they are experiencing and open up to the realm of possibilities that are waiting for them. 

* Maria Giovanna Bianchi is a former UN Staff member. She now works as psychotherapist and psychoanalyst (mariagiovannabianchi.com).
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