This Isn’t What I Signed Up For! Heading Home


By Carrie Jones, LCSW

Director of Counseling, Community Center Shanghai

Moving to another country can be difficult for children (and adults!) even in the best of times when families have plenty of advanced notice and time to prepare themselves and their children for the transition. Back in 2020, many families faced unexpected and unplanned international relocations due to the global pandemic. And now here in 2022 as we experience the surge in Covid cases, as a therapist, I hear person after person say “This isn’t what I signed up for!” and question if it is time to move back home or to a next destination. It goes without saying that most of us have been extremely grateful for how safe and protected we have felt here in China, but naturally, more than two years of travel restrictions, separation from family and loved ones outside of China, and a general feeling of uncertainty, unpredictability, and lack of control understandably do take a toll.  

For the increasing number of those who are deciding it is time to move on, the current circumstances certainly compound the challenges and stress families typically face with a big move. Many parents find making the necessary adjustments in such a rapid manner challenging enough for themselves and may feel a bit at a loss for how best to support their child(ren) under such circumstances. On top of this, some parents express feeling a sense of guilt for putting their kids in this position or even feel like “a failure” for the decisions they have made.

The last two years have been far from easy, but the good news is that children are amazingly resilient, especially when provided with adequate nurture and care. And actually, adults also generally are far more resilient than we give ourselves credit for. As out of control as much of this entire experience has felt, there actually is one critical element that we all still can control – how we show compassion to ourselves and our children. Practicing this kind of compassion will help protect the emotional well-being of kids and adults alike, whether the ultimate decision is to move on or remain here.

For those who are looking at an upcoming move, here are some thoughts to help you prepare:

  • Practice Good Self-Care

How can we practice compassion for ourselves and our children when we find ourselves suddenly facing an international move?  Self-care is vital.  Many parents feel compelled to relentlessly devote all their time and energy to their children, especially in times of crisis.  This intent is good, but misguided.  A parent who neglects to take care of him- or herself is not in a solid place to take care of his/her children.  Kids are extremely perceptive – even if you think you are shielding them from your feelings, you might be surprised at what they pick up on.  Taking some time for self-care is not selfish; in fact, it is often just the opposite; it is a way of ensuring that you can provide the best version of yourself to your loved ones and remain in a stable state to help anchor them through all the unexpected twists, turns, and transitions.

  • Manage the Narrative

It is also important to remember that to a large extent, parents create the narrative that their children hear, internalize, and build on.  If you invest in taking good care of yourself so that you can genuinely speak of difficult situations and circumstances in a balanced way and perhaps even present them as an adventure and opportunity for growth, your children will pick up on this tone and be much better equipped to take this same kind of view.  This doesn’t mean that you have to present a fake rose-colored Pollyanna view of the world and minimize or dismiss pain, suffering, and hardships.  It is healthy and necessary to openly talk about tough feelings, emotions, and circumstances, but to do so in a way that shows children that you have both internal and external resources to draw on to help you through these times.

Senait Petros-Tekeste, former Executive Director of CCS and a parent herself of a family that made multiple international moves as a result of the pandemic jokingly referred to their situation as “playing global hide-and-seek from coronavirus.” Of course, it was stressful and challenging in many ways for her family, but her fun positive spirit and ability to reframe the moves as a game went a long way in helping her family cope and remain healthy and strong emotionally.

  • Recognize and Respect Individual’s Different Coping Styles

We all adapt differently to change, based on our personality, life experiences, attitude about the change(s), and circumstances.  Kids are no exception; no two children will handle the transition of having to suddenly leave behind friends, school, routines, and life here in Shanghai and having to reestablish themselves and their lives in another place.  Some kids may appear to adapt fairly seamlessly and flawlessly, while others may struggle a bit more or be a bit more active and vocal in expressing their resistance to the sudden change.  Either way, allow children to openly express their feelings, whether positive or negative.  Simply feeling heard, understood, and supported can go a long way in helping kids manage the transition in a healthy way. Here are a few ways you can support your children: 

  • Listen. It is hard to over-state the importance of kids being able to feel like they can go to their parents and freely express themselves; there is incredible power in a child feeling like he/she is truly heard.  Don’t feel like you have to rush to “fix things” or offer a solution; just listen.
  • 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!).
  • Help your child maintain contact with friends, family, and loved ones who are elsewhere in the  world.  While technology today makes it easy for teens and adults to connect with friends anywhere in the world, kids need help arranging video 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.  Many children 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! 
  • Help Kids Identify Support Resources.  Whether activities to join, a counselor to talk to, or academic support, help enable and empower kids to find whatever resources they need to help them adjust to life in the new location.
  • Allow children choices. So much of the pandemic experience has felt beyond the control of any of us, but kids may feel even less powerless and in control as parents make decisions about how the family will respond to events.  As much as possible, find things your children can feel like they have some say in and control over – perhaps helping select the new house/apartment or decorating their bedroom.
  • Maintain some familiar routines and traditions… but also be intentional about establishing special new ones in the new location.  Don’t think routines and traditions are just for holidays or special occasions – these can help make ordinary daily life special and more fun.  
  • If you haven’t read Third Culture Kids by David C. Polluck and Ruth E. Van Reken, read it!  This book offers tremendous insight into both the challenges and opportunities kids who live abroad face. While it doesn’t address issues related specifically to the Covid pandemic, it is still highly relevant as this year has magnified the experience of third culture kids.
  • Allow Children to Get Closure

Help your children brainstorm fun and meaningful ways to say goodbye to China, their friends,  and their life here.  You and your kids could write a goodbye note or love letter to Shanghai/China, make a scrapbook of photos of their favorite people, places, and memories here – or maybe even a video montage.  The sky is the limit; it doesn’t matter exactly how you say goodbye and find closure as long as it feels meaningful to your family.

  • Hang In There!

Senait summarized her family’s experience, “The first three months were intense and as parents we were hyper-focused on creating a protective cocoon for the boys.  It got ‘easier’ as we adjusted over the following three or so months.  We created our own normal. We are not yet settled, but light is at the end of the tunnel.”   

One day down the road, the turmoil and entire pandemic experience while living abroad will be an adventure story you share with others and a testimony to how amazingly resilient families and children can be. Until then, hang in there, take good care of yourself and your children, and don’t hesitate to reach out for extra support and help when you need it.

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