Helping children cope when friends relocate

For children in our community, life can be an endless circle of goodbyes as they or their friends relocate to pastures new. Lorraine Cook looks at ways to help with the transitioning.

Dealing with change is considered to be one of the most stressful aspects of life, which is why this time of year can be so difficult for many families. Over the summer, our schedules fill with leaving parties and posts of moving sales, reminding us of one of the hardest parts of living in such a transient society – that once again, our familiar social fabric is going to lose ‘threads,’ and soon, familiar faces will no longer be here, teammates and hiking buddies will be far away and, often, best friends will be moving away.

As difficult as this is for adults (and many consider this to be one of the worst aspects of being an expat), for kids and teens it can be overwhelming. And yet, this is inevitably a part of the life of a Third Culture Kid (TCK). The term TCK was coined in the 1950s by anthropologist and sociologist Ruth Van Reken, who recognised that the experience of living a significant part of your developing years in a different culture from the one in which your parents were raised has a significant impact.

While there are undisputed benefits to being an expat or TCK, it is the leaving of the life they’ve created or loss of good friends from the life that they have, that is one of the greatest challenges. Whether they are the ones moving, or among those left behind, there can be a quagmire of emotions to deal with. Fortunately, there are things that you can do as a parent to help everyone adjust.

Parenting strategies

In the time leading up to ‘the goodbye’, the most important thing you can do is listen to the sadness in your children’s hearts. Listen to them try to find the words to express how they feel about the upcoming change and how overwhelming it is for them. And then, listen some more.

As parents, we often feel compelled to interrupt and talk ourselves, to try to say things that will make our child feel better. But this tendency to ‘fix’ things tends to stunt the process. At the start, rather than minimising or diminishing their feelings by butting in, simply hear your children out.

You should also be prepared for emotions that will go up and down and may give rise to unexpected doubt (that new friends will be made) or anger, that this change is occurring. Children often shift blame onto their parents for being an expat family. Typically, this is not real anger but just frustration at a situation that can’t be changed. Again it’s important to hear these emotions. And try to avoid the tendency to overcompensate with gifts, or special privileges, or promises to ‘make it up’ to your children. 

Being a TCK is an advantage going forward, as being a ‘global nomad’ provides far more benefits to a child than it does disadvantages. Try to keep this in mind when your devastated and teary-eyed child is blaming you for his pain.

Finding the balance

It’s important to plan the best way for kids to say goodbye, whether that’s with a big party or a quiet dinner, or perhaps just a familiar play date. For some children, a big celebration and retrospective is wonderful, but for others, even within the same family, it can be a painful reminder of what is ending. In celebrating the life you are leaving behind, try not to suggest that what has been is unbeatable going forward.

In attempting to help a child feel better about a move, don’t oversell how wonderful it will be. This can backfire when he is actually settling in and the weather is bad or there is too much homework to do. Similarly, if you talk up the next step too much, children may perceive this as dismissing the importance and the irreplaceable aspects of their current world. It’s all about finding the balance.

Keeping in touch is so much easier than it used to be – kids can now go online and continue to game with their buddies, or keep up with each other via social media – but again, don’t present this as a given. When kids don’t see each other every day, and when they are dealing with different time zones and routines, some friendships are inevitably lost.

Children grieve differently and often it is almost invisible, but it can be a daily hurt when they realise that they no longer have their BFF class partner to pair up with for activities, or are faced with playtimes where everyone else seems to have their own groups defined – and don’t seem interested in inviting someone else in. Often, it’s in doing the same things that are now different that sparks pain, so taking a term away from an activity your child did with their BFF can be a good idea. Signing up for a new activity can help your child meet new friends. Novelty can do a lot to renew enthusiasm and excitement.

The experience of dealing with struggles like this, and then moving forward to recreate things, teaches children important life skills. And, ironically, you and your child will be more prepared when it happens again. The next time for a great exodus will be at Christmas. Ah, the life of a TCK…


Essential tips

  1. Be there to listen. While there may be a tendency to promise that it will all be OK and ultimately, of course, life will take on a new shape and sadness will fade, don’t dismiss your child’s pain. Listening is what is needed most.
  2. Give it time. Making friends takes time and it’s a different process for each child. Try to encourage your child to reach out, while knowing that he might not be ready yet.
  3. Provide a sense of continuity. Maintaining family traditions and routines will help your child adjust to so much else that is changing. This can also provide an opportunity to invite others to join, building new friendships.
  4. Make changes. While this might seem counter-intuitive, it can sometimes help to shake things up with a new activity, or sport, or even by doing familiar things in a different way.

Lorraine Cook (M.A. Psych) is a counselling psychologist at The Development Practice in DB North Plaza. You can email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. , or visit www.childfamilydevelopmenthk.com

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