How to Support Your Child Through Transitions: Part Three

This article was written by Mrs. Linda Bloemberg, Concordia's MS Counselor.


Frequently Asked Questions about Transitions

1. When should we tell our child we’re moving?

This can vary based on the age of the child. Generally, once a decision has been made you want to ensure your children are aware. That said, older children should be consulted prior to the decision being made. They need to have a voice in the process and to feel as if their opinion is both valued and respected. They do not have the final say, but they should be heard. 

2. When is the “best” time to move?

Whenever possible it is best to move at the end of a school year and prior to the beginning of the following year. This allows students to say ‘good-bye’ and to be introduced to their new school with many others at the start of the school year. International schools have much more support inherently in place for transitioning students at those times of the year. Additionally, you want to be careful to try not to move at a developmental or academic stage that would interrupt your child’s learning or social development. For example, moving a student from an AP academic program to an IB academic program after 11th grade. This would be extremely difficult and could result in needing extra time for graduation.

3. How can I help prepare my child for the move?

Let them feel. Let them feel excited. Let them feel sad. Let them be angry. There are a myriad of emotions for each family member and permission to feel them is so very important. Once you have given permission for them to feel, be brave to share how you feel. As you model the struggle your children will realize they are not alone and realize that changing emotions is a normal part of this process. Also, ensure they have ample time to say good-bye. Trying to protect them from being sad by not telling them will not allow them the time they need to say their good-byes well. It’s okay to be sad and it’s really important to say good-bye.

4. What if my child is sad?

Every transition involves good-byes and with that comes grief and loss. It is impossible to live this overseas life (or be in an international school community) without experiencing the sadness that comes from leaving - or others leaving. There is no way around it, but allowing yourself and your family to feel the sadness and grief is the first step towards healing. There is no standardized pattern or experience for this as the process of grief is unique to every person. “When grief is accepted and allowed expression, the many other emotions associated with transitions, be they joy, fear, hope, anger, or anticipation, also can be expressed” (Schaetti & Ramsay, 1999). If you find that you or a family member continues to struggle with grief or sadness, please reach out to your school or private counselor.


5. What are some things we can do to ease our transition once we land at our destination?

Do some research in advance. Investigate neighborhoods and schools. Show your children a close-up in Google maps. Find a nearby restaurant that offers the cuisine of your new home and give it a try. Ensure that your children have input in the packing and that all their favorite things are not stashed away in a shipment that could take months to arrive. 

Then, when you land - be gentle. With yourself and with your children. I wish I could go back in time - about 25 years - and be gentler and kinder with my own children. I wish someone would have told me that their acting out behaviors were because their entire world had been turned upside down while we were flying over the ocean and they had no idea how to express themselves. Know that this is a process and give yourself and your child permission to grieve the past and adjust to the present. 

6. What is culture shock?

Culture shock is not a clinical term or a medical condition. It’s simply a common way to describe the confusing and nervous feelings a person may have after leaving a familiar culture to live in a new and different culture. When you move to a new place, you’re bound to face a lot of changes. That can be exciting and stimulating, but it can also be overwhelming. You may feel sad, anxious, frustrated and want to go home. It’s natural to have difficulty adjusting to a new culture. People from other cultures (whom you will be associating with) may have grown up with different values and beliefs than yours. Because of these differences, the things they talk about, the ways they express themselves, and the importance of various ideas may be very different from what you are used to.  

Reverse culture shock may take place when returning to one’s ‘home culture’ after growing accustomed to a new one. The inconsistency between expectations and reality, plus the lack of interest on the part of family and friends (nobody seems to really care about all of your ‘when I lived in…” stories) may result in: frustration, feelings of alienation, and mutual misunderstandings between Third Culture Kids (TCKs) and their friends and family. Of course, the difficulty of readjustment will vary for different individuals, but, in general, the better integrated you have become to your host country’s culture and lifestyle, the harder it is to readjust during reentry.

7. My child was doing academically well at their previous school, but now they are struggling. What's going on here?

Be patient. Every school is different. Even when they have similar curriculum, there are many nuanced differences. It’s important as parents to understand your child’s curriculum and how a new school will be different so that you can support and encourage them. Additionally, transition is hard. Period. To expect a student who might be struggling emotionally to perform at the same academic level as when there was no struggle is an unfair expectation. International schools understand this transition and that it can take time to settle and understand how to navigate the new school environment. Talk to your child’s administrator, counselor or teacher and share your concerns. Oh, and then? Be patient.

8. Why isn’t my child connecting/engaging with peers?

For many, connection is not an immediate reaction to change and transition. Yes, there are those who just seem to jump in and engage quickly in their new community. But, candidly, this should not be the expectation. Often transitioning children finish a school year in one country, go on vacation and never return to the home they left in June. If we think about it through that lens it makes sense that this can be traumatic and leave children feeling uncertain and uneasy about engaging in their new community. It takes both time and intentionality.  As parents, set up playdates, encourage after-school activities, and host others in your home. Model openness by getting involved in your community - whether it be the Parent Support Organization (PSO), a church, women’s club or classes at the gym. Find people for yourself and help your child find theirs as well. If your child continues to struggle after the first few months, consider reaching out to your school counselor or a counselor in the community. Sometimes extra help is needed.

This question also needs to be considered in the world of COVID and the resultant restrictions. School online, lockdowns, social limitations. All these things complicate both transition and the process of connecting with others. Engaging takes a lot more work in this instance. Please be intentional in establishing a routine. Meals, school, family time, social time. The more predictable life is (in the midst of an unpredictable world) the easier it is for children to settle in and feel “at home”.

9. What if my child refuses to connect?

While this is not necessarily the norm, it does happen. When it does it is incredibly difficult for the entire family. I remember a student who transferred in her last year of high school. With no prior overseas experience and no desire to be in Vietnam, you can imagine it was a difficult transition. The parent tried everything to engage the child in their new environment and the new country, but there was a complete disinterest and a huge focus on returning ‘home’ the day after graduation. The student stayed until graduation, never engaging, always pushing the boundaries and making it abundantly clear that she did not want to be here. 

It is very important for parents to understand that if a child believes they will be able to return to their previous home they will often be adamant in their efforts to do so. Be careful not to promise a return (unless you know for certain) or use it to bribe the child into compliance. This will, inevitably, lead to conflict. It is better to address the conflict prior to the move and help children be aware that there are times when adults are required to make difficult decisions - including decisions the child may not like or strongly oppose. That said, please ensure that your child has ‘voice’ and the ability to express their opinion and feelings about the move. Parents, you need to invite this and encourage open dialogue. This will set the stage for continued conversations in the new setting and can help when conflict occurs.

There are also times when families may need to choose to remain in their current location to allow students to finish a school year or to graduate. Often this might mean the family is separated for a time. This is especially relevant if your child is in the last two years of high school and a transition would negatively impact their graduation or college application process. This can be quite complicated however, especially for families with more than one child and trying to address all their needs simultaneously.

10. Should we allow our child to continue communicating with their old friends even when they don’t seem to be connecting with new kids at the school?

FaceTime, FaceBook, Skype, Instagram. There are so many platforms that focus on people making connection. Connection is the foundation of human existence. Severing connections is painful and transitions are filled with changes in our connections. For example, the friend that you had coffee with weekly or went to the gym with, now becomes an occasional FaceTime conversation. For children in transition it is important to enter their new environment and make connections quickly, but at the same time hold onto those previous friendships and meaningful relationships. This requires balance and, often, parental assistance. Not wanting your child to live in their past and therefore not welcome their present, but at the same time being able to maintain relationships around the world. TCKs have an amazing wealth of relationships with people all over the world. These connections are to be fostered as they contribute to the amazing global perspective that defines the TCK. Please be aware however that parents may need to help regulate the time differences to ensure children are not awake all night (due to time differences) chatting and connecting with their old friends.

11. It seems like every year my child has to make new friends, and they aren’t the ones moving on. How can I help?

The life of the “stayer” (the person who does NOT physically move) is also filled with transition. With one-third of the international school population transitioning every year, it is important to remember that transition impacts EVERYONE, not just those getting on an airplane. It looks kind of like this graphic from  

How I wish there was a simple formula to address the pain and grief of the constant good-byes! There is not one. Yet, it is so important to allow our children (and ourselves!) to grieve the loss of others transitioning. The dear friends or adopted extended family leave a hole in our hearts when they leave. We need to give space to acknowledge that and allow the grief to be felt. It is only then that we are free to delve into new relationships with the ‘newbies’ who transitioned in. We have to recognize and experience the loss and then we can begin to reach out and invest in those who have newly arrived into our community.

12. How can we help our child maintain connections to their “home” culture?

Celebrate your home culture(s). Hold onto traditions that are important to you and your family. Be intentional about speaking your first language in your home (but don’t be surprised if your child’s vocabulary is not what you expect). In this day and age of technology, it is possible to stay connected to extended family and friends in a way that was not even a dream 25 year ago. Embrace that and schedule regular times for long-distance contact. When travel is possible, do so. That said, please know that your child may not strongly identify with their ‘passport’ country or this identification may change the longer you are overseas. Their lives are filled with languages and cultures that will be a part of defining them and ‘home’. This is not only okay, but is completely normal. There is no set formula for how this will look for each child, or each family. Be willing to dialogue with your children about their cultural identity and allow their answers to become a part of your family identity. Your lives will be rich and vibrant as a result.

Transition is a journey in itself. It is not just about the destination but about the process. As you and your family encounter this it is important to ensure open communication and give permission for the myriad of emotions. If you find you need support, please reach out to your division counseling staff. Additionally, ensure that you have communicated with the school about your plans so that we can ensure a smooth academic transition as well. We are here for you to support, encourage and, sometimes, just to listen.

Resources for Families: 

Books and Articles

Third culture kids: Growing up among worlds (3rd ed) by Pollock, D.C., Van Reken, R.E., & Pollock, M.V. Nicholas Brealey Publishing: London, 2017.

Raising Global Nomads by Robin Pascoe, published by Expatriate Press, Vancouver, Canada, 2006.

Expat Teens Talk by Dr. Lisa Pittman and Diana Smit, published by Summertime Publishing, Great Britain, 2012.

Home Keeps Moving, by Heidi Sand-Hart, McDougal Publishing, 2010.

Third Culture Kids: Citizens of Everywhere and Nowhere by Kate Mayberry. Published by BBC, 2016.

Useful Websites

Third Culture Kids (TCKs):

Interaction International - Teenage and adult third culture kids, missionaries and families.

TCK World - Military, corporate and families, adult and teenage third culture kids. - a non-profit community of over 21,000 members dedicated to help third culture kids connect and find a sense of belonging.

SeeBeyond - We are here to serve, through retreats, coaching, mentoring, and debriefing designed for TCKs. We’ll have fun, build connections, and increase their intra and interpersonal skills.


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