Back to school in a new place, a new house, and a new country can cause many worries for both children and parents. When arriving in the new country, it is necessary to master the local language and all the cultural codes related to the new environment. When the start of the school year takes place immediately after migration, both the familiarity of the cultural environment and the routine of the daily life are not yet clearly established, limiting one’s sense of autonomy and agency.
Children may utilize various adaptation strategies, such as withdrawal, observation and analysis of the environment, social silence, or the opposite, an increased search for real or virtual social connections. These integration efforts can generate both positive and negative responses in them, such as surprise and pleasure, or frustration and misunderstanding. The latter can lead to regressive behaviors or mood swings.
Depending on the age and stage of psychosocial development, behavioral changes may appear that raise concerns.
During early childhood, a child will monitor the emotions conveyed by parents or siblings. If a child perceives fears or dissatisfaction, they, in-turn, can worry and will seek comfort within the family unit.
In elementary school, above all, children seek to invest in social interactions with their peers. The school becomes a major place for knowing oneself, others, and the rules of social life. The playground is like a relational experimental laboratory that helps children to socially adjust. However, when the start of the new school year takes place in a new living environment with unfamiliar language, communication difficulties, and misunderstandings of socio-cultural codes, the child may feel temporarily lost, frustrated, and isolated.
In middle school, the pre-teens see their bodies undergoing a transformation and their hormone levels shooting through the roof. When everything is changing both within and around oneself, a child may want to socially withdraw while seeking solace in virtual relationships that seem to be more stable, less direct, and in a world of fantasy they can control. A high school teenager approaching adulthood feels the pressure of having to quickly develop a sense of responsibility, autonomy, and relative ambition linked to a professional future. At the same time, teenagers face the prospect of final exams having serious impact and the possibility of pursuing higher education far from the family nest. To protect themselves against these stressors, teenagers can develop behaviors such as carelessness and apathy that might make parents or adults believe that they are indifferent.
To help the child integrate into their new school and their new country, the parent must comfort and understand the often-legitimate fears of the child. Parents can, thus, support their children by acknowledging the different issues specific to their children’s age and personality, while accepting the particularities of the local education system. A tripartite relationship should be established between the children, their parents, and the school environment, such that the children can develop their relationship with their peers, authority, and themselves. Parents may sometimes worry about the quality of the education of the school system in the host country, comparing it to the one they themselves have experienced in their home country. However, new factors, such as technological development, adaptation to another culture and possibly to a new language, make such comparison difficult. Faced with such changes, adults might transfer their stress to their children which could accentuate the children’s anxiety. For some, the culture shock in a local school can be too great and they might feel more reassured in a private educational structure with small class sizes, or in an international school which would allow them to maintain a comforting cultural and linguistic relationship.
Although adaptation may take some time, little by little parents and children will eventually integrate with the particularities of their new environments. However, parents should actively watch for both behavioral signs (irritability, aggressiveness, persistent melancholy, school rejection) and somatic signs (headaches, stomach aches, nightmares, loss of appetite) of strong anxiety in their children. By listening in a non-judgmental way, parents will be able to create a safe environment for their children to verbalize their feelings. To ease the pressure on the kids, it is a good idea to give them an opportunity to enjoy extra-curricular activities of their choosing and provide them with enough time to spend in their room relaxing. If, despite everything, the symptoms persist, it is preferable to consult a therapist with whom they will explore thoughts, emotions, and behaviors symbolically or metaphorically, allowing the child to reconnect with themselves, their strengths, and their personal resources.
Magdalena Zilveti Manasson - August 2022