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Advice and Guidance: Transitions

27 June 2018

The end of a school year can be an exciting but challenging time for many children and families. Uncertainties about new classes and teachers, even new schools and countries, can all add to the worry that some children (and their parents!) may feel. It is natural to feel some excitement and even worry when anticipating such a significant change. We can help to reduce this worry for our families by being prepared for the change. 

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  • DC Bear with Hello Sign

Here are 7 tips taken from an article on Psychology Today, with input from Psychologist Doug Ota, which you may find helpful: 

1. Say your goodbyes
“Moving, at its psychological core, is an experience of loss,” writes Ota. Saying goodbye to the people, places, and the roles that are left behind is an inherently difficult but necessary step. By helping children say a clear goodbye, we are helping them to say a clear hello.

2. Pick pivotal people
Pick a few important people from your child’s life from back “home” (grandparents, neighbours, friends) with whom your child could check in once in a while and tell them about their new life. It’s important to choose people who are staying put. This way, they can become the pivots around which your child’s stories can rotate. 

3. Listen
“Do not underestimate the healing power of simply attending to whatever a child is saying,” writes Ota. Listen reflectively – discerning the core message, or reading between the lines – then repeat the core message back to the child to make sure you got them correctly. This shows empathy and the intention of wanting to truly understand their feelings and experiences. “Having you as an audience is often all they need.”

4. Maintain traditions 
From an evolutionary perspective, human beings resist change. When everything in the landscape starts changing, we intuitively tighten our grasp on things that have stayed the same. For a successful mobility experience, Ota suggests maintaining continuity in space and time. This entails not only bringing along familiar things such as furniture, pictures and sacred objects, but also traditions. Whether they are Sunday dinners or bedtime rituals, doing the same things you used to do at the same time in your new place will provide this continuity.

5. Give children choices
During a move, children often feel like they don't have any choice or control over various parameters of their lives.  “The long-term absence of control over these parameters can lead to two alternatives, either angry rebellion or learned helplessness,” writes Ota. The solution could be to give children choices. Whether it’s big ones (e.g., which school to attend) or small ones (e.g., how to decorate their rooms), having them participate in decision-making will help them feel like not everything is out of their control and thus, help to boost their confidence.

6. Welcome difficult feelings 
Often children will get the sense that they are not allowed to have negative feelings about the move. “Many feel under pressure from their parents (“Why can’t you just be positive for a change?”) or their environment (“You’re so lucky to be going to live abroad!”) to bury negative feelings,” according to Ota. These feelings have a better chance of relaxing and not popping up later in life if they are validated rather than when they are oppressed or denied. Encourage your child to feel like they are allowed to have all kinds of emotions about the move – including the negative ones. After all, navigating through life’s ups and downs is a skill well worth acquiring.

7. Extra help for the introverts
A lot of factors come into play with how well and how quickly we adapt to new environments. One of them is personality. “The more extroverted and assertive a person is, and the more he or she is open to new experiences, the more quickly he or she will adapt through the challenges of mobility,” says Ota. What about the introverts? Children who are shy or cautious, may inherently need more time to process their feelings and adapt to new environments. You can help these children by making them understand their personality strengths and the circumstances under which they thrive. “Teach them to look for somebody else who’s probably feeling afraid, like somebody standing by themselves,” suggests Ota. “Teach them to take a big deep breath, walk up to that person, and introduce themselves.  Then find out where the person’s coming from, and what his or her hobbies are.  Before they know it, they might have a friend.”

Alison Ford



Ota, D. (2014). Safe Passage, How mobility affects people and what international schools should do about it. Summertime Publishing, UK.

Pogosyan, M. (2016). Helping Children Through Transitions. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/between-cultures/201609/helping-children-through-transitions