A Mindful Approach to Child Relocation Culture Shock
I have lived and worked abroad as a young adult on two different occasions. It was a frustrating and overwhelming experience since I did not know the languages well enough to communicate. As much as it was exciting to leave behind everything that was familiar in my USA community, I realized pretty quickly that I missed the comforts of my home. There were a lot of mixed emotions that went along with my being in a strange, new place for the first time.
Looking back, it would have helped me immensely if I had a parent to pave the way for me.
Today as a Psychologist, I apply three key principles of Mindfulness when working with military families who have to move to strange and unfamiliar lands. I have found the Mindful concepts of Exploration, Listening, and Innocent Embrace apply to helping children and teens acclimate to different cultures.
Mindful Exploration refers to seeking out information without any preconceived agenda. I refer to the initial phase of acclimation as the Jubilation Phase. This is when everything that is different is met with excitement and curiosity. During this phase virtually everything—including the way people talk, eat, and work—sparks a delightful interest because it is so new.
To move children/adolescents through this phase, it is important to take advantage of your child’s inquisitive nature and to Mindfully help them explore their new surroundings. This exploration might include visiting a local town, taking public transportation, or seeing artifacts at a museum.
The next phase of acclimation is referred to as the Uncertain Phase. Whatever was exciting and new is now looked at with skepticism and/or criticism. You might hear a comment like “that is sooo boring”. Here your child might be not sure they are happy, or secure, in this new and different place. In effect they may be letting you know that they are terribly homesick.
Mindful Listening is understanding without judging, and here, it’s important that parents do not panic, moralize or bring up how excited their child was just a month ago. Instead, they should try to encourage communication and reflect back their understanding. Mindfully listening to what your child may think is now “boring” can definitely ease their stress.
Once your child feels heard and not judged, you can slowly begin to get them involved in physical activities offered in the new community they now live in. Here the concept of Innocent Embracement comes in handy. Innocent Embrace means being open to and/or engaging in the possibilities that surround us. For instance, it might be a fencing class if they are in Scotland, or a cooking class if in France, and so forth.
The latter (food) is actually a great way to encourage your children to not only want to try, but to actually prepare the local foods right in their new home. It’s also a way to help your child feel more connected to the place he or she is now living in.
Belonging is the last phase of acclimation and Innocent Embracement can assist with this transition. This is the time your child may want you to initiate play dates or meet ups with children of the new culture. Parents can help their children by embracing these friendships rather than being suspicious of them. Getting your child involved in foreign language classes or camps can foster their sense of belonging and help them develop a sense of home abroad.
Children and adolescents adjust much faster than adults, but need help in navigating through the extreme cultural differences, especially at the beginning. In order to minimize a child’s culture shock it’s important to help them through each phase of adjustment.
There is no set time when your child will begin and end a phase, but the strategies mentioned above can help move things along for you and your children.
Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, Revised Edition by David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken