There are some challenges that are more significant than others when you move abroad. Technicalities and logistics tend to sort itself out with some creativity, problem-solving skills, communication and, often, just with pure physical hard work (like shifting boxes!). There are some challenges that are not easily solved and take more time and determination to come to a solution. Don’t give up, be resilient!
What does being resilient mean?
There are many definitions of resilience, but one more common is that ‘competence and success despite severe and prolonged adversity and disadvantage’ (Luthar, et al. 2000). Fonagy, Steele, Steele, Higgit and Target (1994) define resilience as normal development under difficult conditions. Resilience comes from the medical model of pathology and illness. Researchers started to be particularly interested in individuals who were doing well, developing all milestones, despite living difficult adverse circumstances. It led researchers to think of studying more particularly the positive skills and assets of these individuals rather than studying the negative aspects such as symptoms and illnesses. Resilience is therefore an area of positive psychology focusing on studying strengths, skills, assets of individuals demonstrating competence and success despite setbacks, disadvantages and difficulties.
Luther et al. (2000) explain that resilience is a dynamic developmental process where the exposure to substantial adversity is presupposed. Should we presuppose the presence of adversity, what is meant by adversity?
Wright and Masten (2006) define adversity as ‘environmental conditions that interfere with or threaten the accomplishment of age-appropriate developmental tasks such as poverty, child maltreatment and community violence’ and risk as ‘an elevated probability of an undesirable outcome such as the odds of developing schizophrenia being higher in groups of people who have a biological parent with this disorder’ (p.19). Research has identified a number of different factors within children’s lives that place them ‘at-risk’ from, or vulnerable to, restricted life outcomes such as problem behaviours, mental health difficulties, and educational failure or disadvantage (Armstrong, et al., 2005; Wright & Masten, 2006).
Should we consider moving abroad as adversity?
There is no doubt that migrating presents with a number of challenges and setbacks. Adams & Kirova (2007) write a well detailed book on global migration and challenges associated to education. They explain how migration can be different for many people depending on political, economic and personal circumstances. Different authors present a number of factors that shape children’s and families’ lives when experiencing migration as such a significant transition. Although not a full list, I summarise here a number of these factors:
- needing to learn in a different language, different culture and system
- different expectations
- integration to a dominant culture
- maintaining identity and culture vs belonging in a new culture
- discontinuity in education
- fluency in language of host country impacting on opportunities
- failing to find opportunities matching education levels
- maintaining basic necessities when arriving in a new country
- finding employment
- process of settlement and establishing a new life pattern
- prejudice, rejection and racism
- changes in family dynamics
- mental health and well-being
As well as experiencing the issues exposed above, global families may face some more day-to-day challenges. You may feel you are making headway, but then there are a number of setbacks. Don’t expect everything to be amazing straight away…you may need to bounce back!
- You may knock at lots of different doors for help, and many may close…There is so much to sort out all the time: logistics, practical and technical You may have to speak to lots of different people. It can be frustrating and demoralising to be told ‘no, sorry, we can’t help’. It is not easy, it often feels personal, although it may not be, but you can feel that as if it is ‘you’ people can’t help.
- There is a huge emotional side to moving abroad, living abroad. There may be days where you feel you want to be in your own country and see your friends and family. Children can feel like that too. It can be more intense on special days, special occasions, birthdays, etc. It can be isolating.
- People may talk to you about different places, concepts, terms that you don’t know anything about so this will also ask a lot of your energy. Expect to feel tired as there is a lot to think in all at once. Talking to lots of different people can be stimulating but also tiring has they may a different accents and ways to express themselves that are unfamiliar. Again, this can take lots of energy to deal with this. Expect the children to be excited and also tired, great combination!
- Moving to a country where a different language is spoken may also bring some other issues, particularly tiredness is an important factor. I remember when I arrived in Scotland. I needed a nap at 4.00 every day as it was just so exhausting to take all the language in. I found the children on many occasions feeling the same when we visit family In Quebec. It takes them some adaptation initially, they are slightly more silent than usual, excited and tired too. After a few days, they often comment on their first dream in French and they carry on as if they had always been there…
- I found driving around particularly in the UK initially as I had to drive on the other side of the road, roundabouts and other road signs were all very different from home too so it took a lot of my energy in adapting to driving. Initial drives to the north of Scotland were scary and I felt very anxious. Don’t underestimate these feelings as these can take a lot of energy to recover from. Similarly, in Australia, I found driving around fairly easy as I did not have to adapt to driving on the other side of the road, I had already done that, but I got lost so many times, driving around, trying to find my way. It is also gets very dark when the sun goes down, perhaps not so much street lighting, not sure, and I found driving in the dark tricky, again getting lost, missing a turn. Having children in the car also helps or hinders…They insist on telling me how to drive and where to go which can create some interesting discussions and making me particularly anxious. On the other hand, my oldest has been good at using his or my phone to give us directions. Don’t underestimate how tired driving may make you feel…give yourself some time to find your way before and after…
- Children may also have some setbacks. It is important to be able to deal with our own challenges as parents as well as supported the children in thinking about them.
When faced with all of these challenges and setbacks, how should we think, what should we do?
The Language of Resilience
The language of resilience focuses on strengths and protection against adversity, setbacks difficulties. It aims to observe a better outcome, a positive change, an amelioration of an individual’s current state. It moves away from looking at deficits, symptoms, illness and maximise talking about possibilities, changes, modifications to foster one’s well-being and positive adaptation. Research suggests that the value of strengths is particularly important as it will encourage insight and perspectives in your life, provide a sense of direction, bring a sense of fulfilment, help achieve one’s goals (Clifton & Anderson, 2001-2002). Studies have shown that schools promoting…
- caring relationships between pupils and teachers
- high expectations for pupils to do well through practices that are strength, interest and intrinsic motivation for learning based
- pupils’ meaningful involvement and responsibility with opportunities to express opinions, make choices and work with one and other
…act as buffers against disadvantage and adversity (Cefai, 2008).
When talking to your children, or to people around you, have a little think…
‘What language do I use when describing an event?’ Do I dwell in talking about difficulties and setbacks or do I talk about strengths, possibilities, changes?’
Yes, perhaps, it is helps to describe the problem to fully understand the situation, but after that initial description of the problem, where does the conversation lead to?
I drew a mind map to illustrate the language of resilience.
- Allow some time to adapt to take in the language and challenges.
- When overwhelmed with the language, have a nap if you need to, if you can.
- Ensure you are using language based on resilience, strengths and possibilities. See the mind map above as a tool for reflection.
- Keep positive and focused on your goals. Be realistic and transparent in setting specific goals. The task of moving and adapting often feels unsurmontable. Make sure that you set some small steps and landmark points and celebrate these. Ensure this vision is shared and that all involved know what you are trying to achieve.
- Allow your emotions to surface, keep them in check. You can do that by self-monitoring your emotions (Carr, 2004) using a mood diary to monitor causes in your mood: activity helping your mood change, beliefs associated with the mood change and the consequent mood change on a scale of 1 to 10. This may allow to understand better causes for specific emotions, such as homesickness, and activities that can help.
- When things are tough, recharge the batteries: take a break, allow a special day out, a special treat, explore something new, do something you like doing. Evaluate effective and less effective emotional release. For example, a walk in the woods, physical activities, motivational self-talk (‘come on you can do it’), social interactions, relaxation and music and pleasant distractions (hobbies, shopping) tend to be more effective than direct stress reduction such as alcohol and drugs, avoiding a person or event, passive mood release (TV, coffee, food, sleep) and being alone (Salovey, Mayer & Caruso, 2002). I have to admit that I find this point very important. I have been amazed as to how a regular walk in the woods has made me feel in the last few months. I went shopping in a fruit and vegetable shop last week and bought lots of fresh products. It was a beautiful experience, lots of colours, smells, a very enjoyable and uplifting experience, after a hard week full of difficult news. Finding effective emotional release is definitely a must when moving abroad.
- Make sure you revisit why you are there in the first place. When we initially discussed moving abroad, we drew some mind maps, pros and cons for the move. We kept these and we refer to them when in doubt. Take the time to reflect on why it is tough, brainstorm around some possible solutions, all solutions being a possibility. You can do this by doing a mind map or talking to your partner and other people. Positive emotions such as enjoyment, happy, playfulness, love affection, warm friendship can enhance resilience and our ability to cope and can enable us to be focused on problem-solving and reflections on negative events, and facilitate our capabilities to bounce back (Frederickson, 2001).
- Don’t take ‘no’ for an answer. Ask for feedback. Open the communication, send reminders by emails when needed. Give another ring, follow up queries. If a door opens, follow that door as it may lead to a possibility and solution. Always say ‘thank you for your help’.
- Keep the communication with people in a transparent and honest way. Explain your challenges and dilemmas. People will remember your challenges and may think of you if they find an idea or solution.
- Keep open communication with the children. We have dinner every evening together where we talk about our day. We often have a ‘family meeting’ to discuss plans, next steps. We try to involve the children in our adventures as much as possible, explain to them where we aim to be in the next couple of weeks, what needs to be done, how we will do it, how they will contribute to this, etc. A constant challenge, but worth the result as they feel it is their adventure too.
- Ensure that in your communications you include the language of resilience so that others (including the children) understand your challenges, but also see how positive you are and how prepared you are in finding a solution.
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Armstrong, M.I., Birnie-Lefcovitch, S. & Ungar, M.T. (2005). Pathways Between Family Support, Family Well-Being, Quality parenting, and Child Resilience: What we Know. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 14 (2), pp. 269-281.
Boniwell, I (2006). Positive Psychology in a Nutshell. Personal Well-Being Centre (PWBC): London.
Carr (2004). Positive Psychology. Hove and New York: Brunner-Routledge.
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Clifton & Anderson (2001-2002). StrenthsQuest. The Gallup Organization: Washington.
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Fredericton (2011). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 56, 218-226.
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Salovey, Mayer & Caruso (2002). The positive psychology of emotional intelligence. In Snyder & Lopez (ads), Handbook of Positive Psychology Practice (pp. 159-171). New York: Oxford University Press
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