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Time for a change? The National 14.04.2009

Facing upheaval can be tough for anyone, but careful planning and sensitivity can help children to cope, writes Jo Wadham

For most expatriates, returning home one day is inevitable, but recent reports suggest that the end of this academic year will see an increasing number of families leave. For many, the decision to return home is largely premature, due to redundancy, but whatever the reason, leaving the UAE means saying goodbye to a community of friends, the home, the children’s school and precious memories. Moving country is never easy, even when the place that you are moving to is your homeland. It’s a time of enormous adjustment, affecting each family member differently, including the children, whose ability to “bounce back” sometimes leads to their feelings being shrugged off. Change is experienced from the early developmental stages, like learning to walk and talk, but as children get older, imposed changes, such as a big move, require preparation.

For Jane Samson, this summer marks four years since moving to the UAE with her husband, Tom, and daughter, Lucy, four. A year after they had settled into their new life, they had a son, Henry, now three. But the time has come for the Samsons to plan their departure from their home in Abu Dhabi and start over in the United States. “We were very fortunate that we had a choice in where to go,” explains Samson, who spent a week in the US scoping out houses and schools. She believes the fact that she and Tom remain positive about the change will encourage their children to feel happy and secure. “If you know you are going to a place where you can flourish and grow as a family, they sense it immediately. They know it’s a big change, but for them it’s all about fun. It’s fun and exciting going to a new school.”

The NHS clinical psychologist, Dr Katherine Walters, says the parents’ attitude has an enormous influence on how the children will react to change. Not discussing it in order to protect young ears will not necessarily work. “Children notice. They are very good at picking up on subtle emotional clues,” she says.

“How children adapt to change is massively influenced by their own individual characteristics,” she says. But playground wisdom suggests most cope far better than adults. “From a neurological point of view, children are more adaptable and flexible because their brains are growing all the time and neuronal connections are being formed.” This is also why children pick up languages faster and easier than grown-ups.

Time is key in preparing children for change. As Samson’s family is staying in Abu Dhabi until the end of the school year, there are plenty of opportunities to say proper good-byes. “It’s important to finish everything off here before we go. I need time to sort things out in the house, and I want time to let the kids make the most of their last few months here.” She is keen to create memories that the children can take with them. “We are having lots of special play dates, doing sleep-overs and making a big deal of the ordinary stuff like swimming lessons.”

Samson has made a point of asking her children how they feel about the pending move. “Lucy’s real fear is that people will forget who she is and that she will forget who they are.” A good friend of Lucy’s left the UAE at the end of the last school term and Lucy was worried that she had already forgotten what she looked like. To help her daughter deal with this concern, and to create a tangible set of memories, Samson is making a “memory book” for her. “I’m going to fill it with photos of her with her friends.”

As Walters explains: “Children can deal with quite a lot of information but you need to make it palatable for the developmental stage they are at.”

On arrival in the US the Samsons will treat the first two weeks like a holiday. “We are going to have a fun time, to see the sights and hang out.” The idea is to make the move something to look forward to, building a sense of excitement and giving the family time to explore their new environment together.

Inevitably, there will be some children who find it very difficult to deal with change. “Most parents will get a sense of it if their child displays unusual behaviours. This is a sign they are struggling with something emotionally,” says Walters.

She adds that children who are not coping may express their anxieties through somatic symptoms, complaining of a sore leg or tummy ache which prevents them from going to school. These children are giving “physical cause to their distress, because they realise a physical symptom is something that will be picked up”.

Walters suggests parents with older children may consider mirroring the approach adopted by large companies seeking to instigate change “You could have a period of consultation. Children will feel they have participated in the decision if they have made their feelings known. Get them to say what might be different, what they are worried about, ways they think the process can be made easier,” she says.

She also points out that older children will be more likely to resist leaving their friends behind, but that being open and honest can help. “With teenagers it is OK for adults to admit they don’t always know the answer. The relationship can be a bit more transparent. Parents can admit they might not have chosen what is happening.”

Some parents can become over-anxious anticipating how their children will react to change. “Children can usually cope, but they need a few constants to make the process easier,” Walters says. “They will look for familiarity from which they can derive a sense of security.”

Anticipating the birth of her third child, Abu Dhabi resident Sarah Moore says that her two children were acutely aware that a big change was about to occur. Accordingly, she made a conscious effort to keep some routine in their lives. “Aisha was two and a half when I was pregnant with Dylan, and Aaliyah was four. We kept their bath and bedtime routines as normal as possible and still tried to have one-on-one time with each of the girls.”

Managing expectations is important in easing the process of change. “We talked a lot about what to expect, what it would be like having a little baby,” says Moore. She read books to the girls about other children dealing with the birth of a new baby and took them to visit a friend with a newborn. “They saw how tiny the baby was and it helped show them how to be gentle; they were not allowed to hold the baby straight away. They had to first understand how helpless a newborn is.”

Moore involved her girls by enlisting their help in preparing for Dylan’s arrival.  “They shopped with me for clothes, got the nursery ready and helped me pack my bag for the hospital,” she says. They also went with her to an ultra-sound scan where they saw the first images of their baby brother.

Whether change is imposed by external forces or is a natural progression of life, children will take their emotional cues from adults. Depending on the age of the children, enabling them to participate in upcoming events, whether through practical help or open discussion, can ease the transition. As Walters notes “Change is all about not knowing. Some of us like a little of this, but few embrace not knowing day after day after day.”

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