By Melinda Weber, MA, LPC
Living in a foreign country can be a thrilling adventure for children. New homes, new schools, new friends from diverse backgrounds, and new languages are all exciting stuff! However, the exhilaration of broadening worldviews and exotic travel can make children anxious. Big changes can be particularly overwhelming for them, as they often do not have any control over what happens in their lives.
Some of the sources of anxiety for children ages six through nine stem from family systems, environmental issues, and expectations about the future. Here are some concerns that have been voiced to me by numerous young people who have lived in Shanghai:
- Worry about being left alone at home with an ayi.
- Anxiety about the cleanliness of a new country and fear about contracting a disease that they have not been exposed to before living in Shanghai.
- Concern about the safety of a parent if the adult is traveling alone.
- Fear that the parent’s job contract in Shanghai might be extended longer than the child was expecting.
To help children manage their anxiety, let children express their fears in an environment that is free from judgment. Do not downplay their worries. Let children know that you hear them and that you, as a family, will work as a team to help them overcome their anxieties. Address each concern with the same sincerity, knowing that their fears are quite real — even if most of their worries are not likely to happen. Assure your children that you are responsible for keeping them safe and that you take it very seriously. Point out the steps that you have taken in order to ensure their wellbeing.
The following are also good ways to help build a sense of security and calm for your child:
- Have a routine at home. Children thrive on knowing what to expect from day to day and on feeling some control over their environments. Keep a routine of positive activities that your children can look forward to on a regular basis. Let your children know if there will be a change so they can try to anticipate and adjust on their own. Make sure that they feel comfortable with the ayi in the home by including her in daily activities. Give your children time to adjust to the ayi before you leave them alone with her.
- Practice relaxing. Relaxing the body often has a way of easing the mind. Look into different progressive muscle relaxation programs that can be downloaded for free from the internet. Intentional deep breathing while listening to serene music for a few minutes at the end of the day can also calm the mind. Children can also benefit from these exercises.
- No scary stuff. If your children are sensitive to scary images, do not let them watch the news or any films that contain violence or other frightening material. If they are anxious, such images will only serve to heighten their fears.
- Share your experiences. As an adult, your young ones look up to you as their role model. If you have faced fears in the past, or you are struggling with current anxiety, get help and let your children know how if you have overcome some of your own fears.
- Find solace in faith. If faith plays a big role in your family, pray with them, read your holy writings, and meet with other people who share your beliefs.
Remember that you are the expert when it comes to your own children. If you feel that your young ones need a little bit of extra support, make an appointment with a counselor. There are many methods designed especially to help children cope with the anxiety that might arise from a big change like moving to Shanghai.
Seek professional help if your child:
- Seems to be so anxious that he is unable to complete his daily tasks.
- Has extreme weight loss or weight gain in a short amount of time.
- Has problems going to sleep consistently for longer than a few weeks.
- Is unable to redirect his thoughts, even with your guidance.
- Has a dramatic decrease in grades at school.
- Loses interest in most activities that he used to enjoy.
- Seems agitated or angry most of the time.
- Is unable to control his behavior at home or at school.
Helpful Resources “Stress and Your Child”, Dr. Bettie B. Youngs “Your Anxious Child: How Parents and Teachers Can Relieve Anxiety in Children”, John S. Dacey and Lisa B. Fiore “Think Good- Feel Good: A Cognitive Behavior Therapy Workbook for Children and Young People”, Paul Stallard
This article first appeared in the CARE magazine published by Community Center Shanghai, and permission was given to ShanghaiMamas to reprint.