How to help kids settle down in a new environment

Psychologists tell parents how to give emotional support for kids starting in a new school or city

Illustration by Scain Lee

A new city or a new school can make any child anxious. Psychologists tackle questions commonly asked by parents who are worried themselves

Is it common for new expat families to feel anxious?

Dr Chang Wei at Beijing United: It’s common for every family, for kids starting at a new school and adults starting at a new office. Moving countries can create issues for everyone; it’s all about adjustment.

Dr Eleanor Wong at Oasis: Living in Beijing for the first time can be challenging, for parents who have to adjust to a new culture, and for kids who have to adjust to teachers and friends who look foreign and speak different languages.

How can I prepare my child for the new environment?

CW: Preparation should start a few months before you arrive in Beijing, once you know when you’ll be moving. Sometimes your company will send you out here beforehand for a visit; take your child with you and visit schools. When you’ve chosen the school, try to establish networks by asking the school if there are any ex-students who are now back in your home country. Contact that family and ask them to give you an insight into school life in Beijing. Also, get your child to look at the school website, and check out the photos and the facilities, so that they’re familiar with the environment. Once they start saying ‘oh, that’s cool’, or ‘that’s exciting’, they begin to get attached.

EW: It’s important that parents conduct thorough research on the different school systems that are available, helped by recommendations or word of mouth from friends or colleagues. Once you’ve selected the school, stick with the

decision instead of changing so the child has time to adjust. I had a few cases of parents having anxiety over the choice of school and changing schools frequently. This can create anxiety for both children and parents.

How can I prepare my child for their first day?

CW: Once you’ve moved to Beijing, take your child to the school before term starts, so they get used to the physical environment and their first day is not so scary. Try to organise play dates with other kids who go to that school, so when your child starts they already have friends there. Before the first day of school, make sure the child gets adequate sleep. You don’t want them going to school jet lagged so move at least two weeks before and have the family settled down. For many kids, it’ll be the first time they take the school bus, so get all the information beforehand – where the bus stop is, who else is on the bus, which number it is. Mentally and literally walk through it together, and reassure them of where you will be to pick them up, which will give them a sense of security.

EW: Create a feeling of positive anticipation so your child is excited about schooling. You could share your experience of school, highlighting all the wonderful things they can expect. Your attitude will shape your child’s expectations, so be positive and relaxed. Go through the routine of going to school, and prepare the necessary items such as the bag and the water bottle. Rehearse the key activities such as eating and drinking without help and going to the toilet, and decide on a standard goodbye ritual. On the first day, arrive early and give them plenty of time to settle in. Set an example, and be relaxed with a touch of excitement. When it’s time to leave the child at school, do the standard goodbye ritual, hand the child to the teacher and assure the child that you will be back to pick them up at a specific time.

What do I do if my child cries on the first day?

EW: It’s common for young children to experience separation anxiety when they’re separated from their parents. It’s a familiar scene in nurseries and childcare centres where kids cling to their parents and cry hysterically on the first instance of separation. It’s normal for the child to give a fuss and even cry, but be firm and leave the premises promptly. This will make it easier for both the child and the teacher. Once they’ve settled into a regular routine, many kids will outgrow this typical stage of child development. Regardless of how long a child takes, parents should be in a positive state of mind to deal with it. If the parents get unnerved, the child may reflect that and have even greater difficulties adjusting.

CW: If the child is crying and refusing to get on the school bus, get on with them. But this process shouldn’t last too long, or it will become difficult to stop. Tell the teachers that your child is new and having a hard time, so they’ll keep a close eye on them. If the problem continues for weeks, your child may be suffering from separation anxiety. But remember that separation anxiety is not very common – often, as soon as the parent leaves, the child will be fine. If you’re concerned, seek psychological advice.

My child is feeling homesick for their school and friends back home. What should I do?

CW: It’s reasonable to take several weeks or months to settle down, and complaints are normal. Make sure you validate your child’s homesickness by saying ‘I know’ or ‘we miss our friends, too’. Don’t shut them down; listen. Take advantage of today’s advanced technology and encourage them to maintain contact with their old friends through email, Skype or Facebook.

EW: For many kids, learning Chinese can be a challenge. To make matters worse, many parents engage private Chinese tutors for their kids. This makes learning Chinese an absolute bore! Instead, get them to learn Chinese in a natural immersive setting, by taking your child to local stores and markets or by watching Chinese TV dramas. Invite Chinese children in the neighbourhood to play; this will help your child’s command of Chinese as well as help them learn about the local culture.

It’s been months and my child is still not settled. Where can I seek help?

EW: In rare cases, children can experience intense separation anxiety which lasts for months and interferes with school activities. Such cases need professional help. If the child remains in a fearful state, throws tantrums or causes disruption in class, the teacher will most likely consult you. As a parent, you should also look out to see if your child is showing any eating or sleeping problems. Explore the problem with the school and ascertain the cause. In some cases, the child may not be ready for school – lacking the emotional maturity to handle it. In other cases, there may be underlying developmental issues. Whatever the case may be, work closely with the school to resolve the issues, or it may be best to defer school until the child is ready.

CW: Some kids who have real difficulty adjusting may have other problems such as depression, anxiety, or social difficulties. Get support from school counsellors, who are there to help the students and their families. If that’s not enough, seek outside professional help. There was a case I handled once of a teenage boy who went to school for a couple of days and then refused to go again. The school counsellors talked to him and suggested doing flexible half-days but that didn’t work. When I evaluated him, I felt it was necessary to suggest that the parents take him back to their home country and see a psychologist, which they did. China is not for every child, and this happens once in a while. The cause may not simply be adjustment issues, so you need to tease it out.

How can I team up with the school to support my child?

EW: The parent-teacher relationship is of paramount importance to a child’s development, so work in tandem with the teachers, in a relationship of trust and respect. Get a regular update on your child’s progress, even if they seem to be adjusting well. It would be even better if you were involved as homeroom parents. However, in my experience there can be a delicate balance in the parent-teacher relationship. If the parents are over-protective and constantly jumping in to ‘rescue’ the child, the teacher will not have sufficient space and authority to do their job. In extreme cases, overly anxious parents can cause more harm than good. It’s important to learn to let go and trust.

CW: You can get involved in the school’s PTA – it provides the opportunity to get to know the school and get connected with the principal, teachers, other parents and the school community. That way, you know what’s going on in school without asking, you can consult people if you have immediate concerns, and your child can feel really supported. If you have specific concerns, contact the teachers for academic enquiries, or the school counsellors for social difficulties and adjustment issues. Sometimes schools organise social events that help improve communication and resolve conflicts, so watch out for those.

I’m a parent, and I’ve got separation anxiety! What should I do?

CW: Often, a child’s anxiety can actually come from the parents. If mum shows that she’s worried her child may be bullied or in danger, the child picks up on this and it makes them more clingy. It’s not always easy for parents, especially for mothers, who go through several changes that may start the anxiety. For example, when they stop breastfeeding, go back to work from maternity leave, or travel for work. Take time to deal with your own separation anxiety, and get professional help if necessary.

EW: Examine your thoughts and feelings to see if there is any underlying anxiety in general. You may be dealing with uncertainties, making you tense and easily agitated – living in a foreign country with limited support can create stress and anxiety. I suggest that mums in particular have regular time out for themselves. This could be an afternoon away from home with a caretaker looking after the child, regular exercise or talking to friends back home. If anxiety still lingers, consider seeking professional help.

Dr Chang Wei is a licensed psychologist at Beijing United Family Hospital and Clinics. Dr Eleanor Wong is a psychology counsellor at Oasis International Hospital.

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