Coping Tips for Major Family Transitions
by Renee Brossman (MA), School Counselor, Yew Chung International School of Shanghai
My husband, two pre-teen children, our family pup, and I recently moved from the US to Shanghai and successfully completed our first year. The year leading up to the move was fraught with anxieties, fear, excitement and logistical challenges. The first year in our new home was full of great new experiences, homesickness, making new friends, feelings of insecurity, frustrations, and the making of fabulous memories. Moving can be one of life’s greatest challenges. It can lead to individual and family growth but can also bring challenges that can negatively impact parents or children. It is during times of transition (a new job, change of schools, moving homes, a new country, a new family member) that we need to be gentle with each other, recognize our own emotional responses and those of our children, and seek support outside of ourselves when we need it.
Being in transition effects the whole family. Picture a mobile that hangs over a baby crib. If you think of each person in a family on the mobile, a yank on one will cause all the rest to jiggle, and how hard a person’s spot on the mobile is pulled determines how much it impacts the rest of the family. It takes time for all the pieces to stop jiggling and balance out.
During transitions, children may be affected in many ways: emotionally, physically, and socially. This can lead to negative behaviors which can be most frustrating for parents. Parents may see children rapidly switch from one emotion or behavior to another, depending on the moment. Below is a list of common reactions to transition.
- Emotionally – unsettled, angry, excited, happy, sad, worried
- Physically – upset stomach, headaches, more susceptible to illness, sleep problems
- Socially – unsure of how to fit in, more sensitive/reactive, feelings of vulnerability, fear, insecurity.
Top tips for parents during times of transition:
- Recognize loss. When families are in transition, the feelings of loss can be extraordinary. Parents can help model to their children how to acknowledge the pain of leaving the familiar, leaving friends and/or family, honoring the necessary goodbyes, and looking forward to their new environment/situation.
- Listen to your child. Ask about their feelings and validate whatever way they feel. If you are seeing negative behaviors, try to help them identify what the feelings are behind the behavior. “I accept that you are angry with us for adopting the new baby because it has changed a lot for you. It is okay to feel angry. Together, let’s try to find positive things about how this changes our family.” Help them recognize that feeling strong, negative emotions are a normal part of any change. The quicker you can help them identify and cope with any negative feelings, the more quickly the emotions (and behaviors) will subside.
- Focus on the positive. Let your children take charge of things in their environment (pick new decorations for their bedroom, take on a new responsibility that benefits the family or explore places they wish to visit in their environment). Focus on what you will experience as a family and how you grow individually and collectively through the difficulties. There is a lot of strength and pride in learning how to cope and overcome new situations. Point out individual strengths and how each person has improved in different areas because of the transition. Congratulate yourselves when you have done new things that might have been intimidating (such as the first day of school, first day of work, making a connection with a new person, contributing something to your new communities, contributing something to the family).
- Keep parent emotions in check. Be mindful of your own emotions and how you are responding to your environment and to your children. Children rely on how their parents are responding to situations in order to determine how they should respond. Make sure you are getting the support you need (from family, friends, co-workers, spouse) in order to be emotionally available for your children.
- Create opportunities for children to feel successful and fit into the new community. This can include joining clubs, a church, parent groups, sports activities, or new hobbies. This is where they may make new friends and feel a sense of community.
Even with all the best intentions and support, some family members may need additional support in order to cope with a major transition. If you notice your child, your spouse, or yourself not adapting well to the transition in your family, it is important to reach out to the supports available to you. This could be opening up about your struggles with family or friends, another parent, a church leader, a social/emotional counselor in your child’s school, or a community-based counselor.
There are counselors in Shanghai who work specifically with expatriate families, many of whom speak a variety of languages. The most important thing to realize is that everyone responds to transition in a different way and it is ok to seek support if anyone is struggling. There is hope that any transition your family experiences brings valuable individual and collective personal growth and positive memories. If your family mobile gets pulled by a major transition and everyone is jumping around, one of the most important things to remember is that it will take time to restore balance.
Community Center – http://www.communitycenter.cn
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