Starting a new school in a new country can be really daunting for your child and for you as a parent. Questions like, ‘will they fit in?’, ‘will they understand the curriculum?’ (or in some cases the language), ‘will they make friends?’, ‘will they get bullied?’, ‘who will they sit with at lunch?’ can swirl around and around in your head.
You have an image of who your child is. Maybe in their last school they were incredibly popular and outgoing with lots of friends, maybe they captained the sports team or won academic achievement awards. It is a mistake to think that they will drop into their new school with the same identity. They are a blank slate to their classmates and teachers – they have no sense of who your child is or was at their previous school. For some this is a blessing, a chance to start again; for others their sense of loss is immense.
Your outgoing child may become more introverted as they adjust to their new environment. You may worry that your child has changed and perhaps there is some bullying or nastiness going on. Check with their teacher, but often there isn’t – it is just there is a period of adjustment which can last, my experience up to a year. You may feel the same way yourself – that you have lost part of who you are. This is because we see ourselves reflected in the relationships we have with others. Who are we if no one knows our story?
It makes sense therefore that we hang on to the relationships and the people who know us from before. It may seem your child wants to spend all their time messaging friends from ‘back home’ rather than concentrating on building new relationships with people in their new country. You may do the same. It is like having one foot in each country. Your child may be physically in your new place but a good chunk of their heart and brain is still in the old one. We gain so much by moving abroad, but we can also lose things in the process – relationships, identities, even things as seemingly trivial as our pillows. By acknowledging what we have lost it helps us grieve the life we left behind and start to embrace our new one. If your child is homesick, simply acknowledging it with a hug can be powerful: “You’re sad because you miss your friends, hey?”
Allow them time to talk to their old friends while at the same time create opportunities for them to make new ones. Extra-curricular activities based around your child’s interests are a great way for them to meet new potential friends. Their new school should be able to inform you of the activities they provide. If they don’t have activities that suit your child’s interests check the local community – expat pages on social media can be a hive of useful information in this respect.
When I worked as a school counsellor, I asked students what advice they would give to a new student starting at an international school. One that had moved schools many times and seemed rather confident that they would be fine wherever they ended up next said:
“I spend about a week watching the other kids figuring out who ‘my people’ are and those who I need to avoid. At break or lunch one day I will approach the group who I think are nice and say “I’m new – could you tell me where the bathroom is please?” It works every time – they offer to take me and because they know I am new they talk to me and ask if I want to hang out with them”
This strategy is so simple yet so effective. By identifying who they thought they would get along with and allowing themselves to seem vulnerable they easily found new friends.
Another thing that new students worry about often is how they will navigate around the school; what happens if they get lost? Ask your child’s new school what they have in place to help support new students. They may have a buddy system where new students are paired with another child in their class, or they may have a transition program where all of the new students are placed together to help support one another. There may be a certain teacher or a place in school that your child can go to if they get lost. Letting your child know what will happen on their first day gives them a sense of security and control and gives you the opportunity to ensure they will have all of the stationary etc they need for the day.
As their parent you are their constant, their safety, their anchor. Therefore, you will get the brunt of their big emotions. They will storm in from school and hand you a big rain cloud of negativity then seemingly be fine 5 minutes later. This is called ‘emotional dumping’ and can make you feel awful. I have listened as homesick teenagers in boarding houses cry down the phone to their parents, only to wipe away their tears and are happily playing pool with their new friends 5 minutes later when their frantic parents call me to ask how they are. As parents you don’t often see how well they are doing, you are their comfort in their time of need and are left holding their big emotional rain cloud while they feel better.
If your child is having difficulties, a good strategy is to ask them to think of solutions instead of sweeping in and trying to fix everything yourself as tempting as that is. This teaches them that they have the resources within themselves to problem solve and be okay. Sometimes though things don’t resolve themselves easily and you and your child need some extra help – this can particularly be the case if you are both going through similar things like acute homesickness. Counselling can help process your emotions and find strategies to feel better. If you are struggling, please get in touch.