Children and Change; Adjustment by Age

By Carrie Jones, LCSW

Have you ever wished that kids came with a manual, telling you just what to expect and exactly how to respond?  If only!  Not only would this be helpful during the course of “normal” life, but especially so during the periods of change and adjustment that we as expats and our children so frequently face.  Of course, no such magical handbook exists and part of the beauty of children is their uniqueness, individuality, and diversity.  Based on each child’s unique character, experience, and circumstances, he or she will experience times of transition differently.  Short of a comprehensive guidebook, there are some common reactions you might watch for and some basic approaches you might consider as a starting point to help support your child(ren), depending on age and stage of development.


Even for preschoolers who are verbal, expressing emotionally complex issues through words is a stretch, so it can be a real challenge to know how these little ones are handling change or what they are thinking and feeling.   Even if they can’t quite articulate their feelings though, what they are experiencing is very real, and it will be important to look for and respond to behavioral cues.

You Might Notice:

Acting out.  Some children express uncomfortable emotions or seek attention by becoming more “naughty” or aggressive.

Increased clinginess and neediness.  For preschoolers, parents tend to be the most important figures in their lives.  When everything around them seems to have changed (language, people, culture, routines, physical environment), it is natural for them to respond by relying more heavily than usual on you. 

 –Regression back to previous developmental stages.  Some kids will experience temporary set-backs in skills they had previously acquired such as toilet training or speech.

You Might Try:

Offer Extra Verbal Reassurance.  More than ever, kids need to hear “I love you,” or other words of affection, comfort, encouragement, and affirmation…over and over and over! 

-Offer Extra Physical Contact.  Make time for extra hugs and snuggles; these can be far more reassuring than words to little kids (big ones too, actually!).

Elementary  Schoolers

Even with well-developed language skills, elementary school aged kids are just learning how to recognize and express their emotions.

You Might Notice

Somatic Symptoms.  These are physical symptoms such as tummy aches and headaches that don’t have a medical cause.   Even elementary school kids can struggle to verbalize emotions, so these feelings often remain internal and manifest themselves physically.

-Sleep Difficulties. Some kids have difficulty falling asleep while others find themselves waking frequently.   Nightmares and/or fear of sleeping alone are among the most common issues I see in the children I counsel here.

Changes in demeanor or general attitude.  A child with a naturally sunny temperament might suddenly seem more moody or grumpy or a child who used to be brave and outgoing might suddenly be a bit more hesitant and reserved.

You Might Try

Helping your child maintain contact with loved ones back home.  While technology today makes it easy for teens and adults to connect with friends anywhere in the world, kids need help arranging Skype calls or other meaningful ways to stay in touch with family and friends they have left behind.  Try to do this as regularly and consistently as possible.

Story-telling.  Kids sometimes aren’t sure how to articulate their feelings or worry that how they feel isn’t normal or okay.  I’ve found they love to read or hear stories about kids in similar situations or with similar feelings.  If you have relevant books, great; if not, use your imagination and make up stories!


The adolescent years are by nature a time of extreme transition, moving from childhood toward adulthood, so add in a transition such as a move to Shanghai and a new school and some teens will have pretty intense reactions, at least at first.

You Might Notice

School Refusal.  Some teens may feel overwhelmed having to make new friends or adjust to a new academic system and may beg and plead to stay home or flat out refuse to go.  In fact, this is one of the most frequent adjustment issues I see that prompts parents to bring their teen in for counseling sessions.

-Change in Academic Performance.  As if the emotional adjustment alone isn’t enough, many teens also encounter a big difference in academic expectations between their previous school and their new school here.  Whether due to the general adjustment process or increased academic rigor, some teens may experience a decline in their grades or how they perform at school.  Alternatively, I also have seen other teens who cope with stress and anxiety by hyper-focusing on academic and developing perfectionistic tendencies.

-Isolation or Withdraw.  Part of a being a teen is relying more and more on friends and peers and less on parents and families, butit can be a challenge, especially initially, for some teens to feel like they can find friends they can really relate to.  Shanghai American School high school principal Jonathan Border aptly summarizes, “It’s difficult to get teenagers to admit to having problems, let alone share them in a group of other kids they may not know.”

What You Might Try

-Listen.  It is hard to over-state the importance of teens being able to feel like they can go to their parents and freely express themselves; there is incredible power in a teen just feeling like he/she is truly heard.  Don’t feel like you have to rush to “fix things” or offer a solution and be careful to moderate your initial reaction when your teen tells you something you find disturbing.

Help Teens Identify Support Resources.  Whether activities to join, a counselor to talk to, or academic support, help enable and empower teens to find whatever resources they need to help them adjust to life here.

Don’t let these possibly reactions and experiences scare or discourage you.  Rather, take them as a reminder that we all do experience some degree of culture shock and at least minor challenges in adjusting; again, children are no exception.  The good news is that kids are amazingly resilient.  The perspectives they gain here and the experiences life here has to offer, even including the struggles to adjust, will help shape, mold, and mature them and prepare them for whatever other great adventures await them in the future.

General Tips For Families No Matter How Old Your Kids Are

Help your kids keep perspective.  As 10 year old seasoned expat Luca Lennon wisely points out, “There are a lot of things that are different about life here, but there are way more things that are the same.”

Often, kids feel they didn’t have much control over the move here.  As much, as possible, find things they can feel like they have some say in and control over, perhaps how to decorate their room or help in planning family trips.

Maintain some familiar routines and traditions from home, but also be intentional about establishing special new ones here.   And don’t think these are just for holidays or special occasions – these can help make ordinary daily life special and more fun.

-Kids are incredibly perceptive – they are watching you and picking up on your attitudes and behaviors.  Practice good self-care as you go through the adjustment and try to model viewing it as a great adventure.

If you haven’t read Third Culture Kids by David C. Polluck and Ruth E. Van Reken, read it!  This offers tremendous insight into both the challenges and opportunities kids who live abroad face.

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