Moving is not easy on anyone — adults or kids. John is a 14-year-old boy who recently moved from the US to the Netherlands. According to his parents, he is moody and angry, and he is having a hard time making friends and engaging in schoolwork at his new school. His parents are not sure if he is depressed or just being a teenager.
Research shows that young people who have moved house may experience unresolved grief from the loss of their home, school and friends, and this may manifest itself as denial, anger, depression, withdrawal or rebellion. Like John, kids who have recently moved may exhibit difficulties with their identity formation because previously stable factors at home and school are missing during an important time in their life.
Parents and caregivers have an essential role in supporting kids during a move. They can help children and teens create a sense of identity, belonging and rootedness. The following are some strategies to help improve self-confidence and minimize cultural homelessness:
- Realize that every child is unique when it comes to change
One of my kids had a much harder time with a recent move than the other. He missed his friends, his old school and his routine, and he grieved this loss. Know your child and take time to explore how they may be addressing change. Remember that moving during the teen years is significantly harder because this is a formative period. Having said that, many young people are extremely resilient and handle change well.
- Create belonging in the local community
Kids that feel connected to the local community will feel more self-confident. Ensure yours have a good understanding of the culture by encouraging them to be involved with community service, be part of a local sports team, or engage in other activities. For my son, who was struggling with our recent move, activities like walking the neighbor’s dog every day, joining a local soccer club, and speaking with his grandparents regularly were very helpful. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help and support, whether it is from a family member, counselor, coach or teacher.
- Use social communities to build language
Multilingualism can be hard to maintain, especially if there are more than two or three languages at play. As Mariam Ottimofiore, who is the author of This Messy Mobile Life and who has lived in nine countries with her husband and two children, suggests, “Get support from others to encourage using the local language, to make it fun and exciting for kids. Think about joining clubs or camps where the additional language will be used or enrolling in a study-abroad experience for immersion. At the same time, realize that it is OK if your child is unable to maintain all the languages they have been exposed to. You and your teen will need to prioritize which languages are important and how to continue learning them.”
- Use virtual tools to maintain contact
For some kids, having connections with their old community and friends is a meaningful way to handle loss. As we have learned from Covid-19, using virtual tools such as Skype or Zoom are good ways for kids to stay in touch with family or community far away.
- Demonstrate healthy ways to grieve, and get help if needed
Encourage healthy ways to address loss, such as journaling, connecting via a phone or video call, exercising, meditating, and listening to music (even crying can be cathartic). If needed, look for a counselor or mentor to help your teen identify and deal with loss directly.
- Be aware that adults can struggle, too
Adults who have moved may not have a clear sense of identity in their new location or may struggle to belong, which can add to their child’s or teen's challenges. On the other hand, cross-cultural adults may also impart skills and values honed from their own experiences. As an adult expatriate, I realized that each time I moved, it took me two to three years to settle into my new environment. I now know that finding a community and creating a sense of identity and belonging have been crucial to my happiness and sense of well-being in each country that we have lived in. Having friends who have gone through similar experiences, visiting online forums, and being involved with cross-cultural organizations such as Families in Global Transition (FIGT) have also helped me immensely. Being aware of these issues may be important for families as they navigate change and uncertainty — both now and in the future.
Dr. Anisha Abraham is a pediatrician and a teen health expert who is on the faculty of the University of Amsterdam and Georgetown University Hospital. Anisha works with cross-cultural teens on issues such as stress, substance use, body image, and self-esteem. This piece was adapted from her recently released book, Raising Global Teens. For more information or to order the book, see dranishaabraham.com.