After 12 plus years in the mission field, it was time for us to go back — back to a place my husband and I called “home,” but for our two children who were ages two and four when we went to the mission field and were now turning 15 and 17, the place we called home was not home for them. Sure, they were familiar with some of the family and places we had visited over the years while on furlough. It was just that they had no roots in their passport country. For them, “home” was where they grew up, where their friends were, where they learned to trust people, where their pet dogs Babe and Junior, cats Tiger and Socksy and parrot Julius were. Not to mention all their memories. Their inventions. Graduating from training wheels to big wheels to mountain bikes as they rode all over campus. Close encounters with puff adders. Enjoying the local food. Volunteering to take a night shift on campus security, only to discover after being on the job less than an hour that it’s really not a job for young boys. The home they knew was a place where they could run free in the wide open space on campus and feel safe. This is where they belonged, where families looked out for each other. It was a place where “it took a village to raise a child.”
Uprooting wasn’t easy. It took months of planning and preparation. If I were to do it all over again, based on what I know now, I would probably do some of it a bit differently and would try to implement what I will share with you here.
Timing is important. As much as possible, plan your departure to arrive in your passport country well before the next school year begins. This will allow time for some adjustment and orientation and to make appropriate arrangements for your child’s education. Start by making a list of everything that has to be done. Most of all, remember to prepare your child by involving them in some of the decisions, especially as it relates to them. This will help to ease the pain and stress and fears of the unknown.
For a child who has grown up away from the parents’ home country, moving is a big deal. When they move, they leave behind everything that made up their world — their home.
Leaving the only home they have ever known is hard. It is painful and stressful. They will feel insecure, perhaps even start to withdraw. As they try to come to grips with the reality of having to say goodbye to friends, pets, belongings, home, and memories, they may hide their true feelings and act out in ways they never have before. Yes, they will adapt and adjust, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
If you’re looking for ways to help ease the pain and stress of transition with your child, these few tips might be helpful.
Before you go
Pets — Children can be emotionally attached to their pets. Pets provide comfort and security for a child. We saw this in our two children. Involve your child in finding a good home for the family dog, cat, birds, fish, or whatever the case may be. If your child feels comfortable and safe with the individual who has agreed to adopt their pet, it will help put their minds at ease, knowing that their pet will be well taken care of. Expect that they will grieve over this loss.
Stuff — Like many adults, children have emotional ties to their stuff, be it a favorite stuffed toy, a worn out blanket, a torn and much loved book, an article of clothing with the print rubbed off, or whatever gives them comfort. Help them set up three boxes or containers labeled “throw away,” “give away” and “keep.” Be present in the room and allow them to sort through their belongings. Let them decide (with help as needed) which container to put them in. Ask them to share a special memory that relates to the item they place in the “keep” container. For younger children, you might have to decide for them while still giving them a choice. You might even want to make a game out of this activity or make up a song to go with the activity.
Friends — Friends are important. Friends make up a large part of a child’s world.Ask achild what is the hardest thing about moving, and they will immediately tell you the hardest thing is leaving their friends — friends they’ve made memories with, friends who’ve stuck with them through thick and thin, friends they could share secrets with. Work with your child to plan and arrange a farewell party with their friends at your home. Your child could also write little notes of affirmation to each friend or depending on available funds, give a simple keepsake.
Saying Goodbye — Life is full of goodbyes, but we know that some goodbyes are more difficult than others. Learning to say a proper goodbye doesn’t make it easier, but it will help ease the pain. Encourage your children to make things right with anyone they may be at odds with. If this is too difficult, reassure them that you can accompany them if needed. Another thoughtful thing to do is to write a thank-you note to a friend or someone who was helpful to them. This may sound a bit strange, but if they haven’t already done so, encourage them to say goodbye to a favorite tree they liked to climb or that special place in the house or yard where they could dream their dreams or plan their future. Listen to your child’s feelings. Allow them to share what they’re feeling — the grief and loss they’re experiencing. Listen to what they’re not saying. Try not to brush it off and think they’ll get over it.
Once you’re back “home”
Where to live — If they’re old enough, include your child in house hunting and get their opinion or input on the choice of a home. Let them know their opinion matters and is valued.
Church — Try to find a church home as soon as possible, a warm and friendly church, a place where not only you but also your children can feel comfortable and safe, where they can make new friends, feel connected and have a sense of belonging. Feeling like they belong is key to a child who has been uprooted from everything they’ve ever known. Being part of a church family helps create an anchor when everything else may still feel insecure.
School — School is a big deal. This is the place where your child will spend a good share of the day, five days a week, so do your research well when looking for a school. It is important that your child feels accepted by their peers. This may take some time. Spend time talking about the day. Participate in school activities for parents and other school activities that your child is engaged in. Encourage them to participate in after-school activities when appropriate. Get to know your child’s friends and their families. There is much to say on the topic of school. Many resources are available on the internet.
Making a home away from “home” — Moving can be a big disrupter of daily routine. In spite of the upset, try as much as possible to follow their normal daily routine — meal schedule, tasks, playtime, musical instrument practice, bedtime, and so on. Daily routines help make a child feel more secure. Another thing you can do is to arrange their room (with their help, of course) similar to the way it was in your host country — add memorabilia, pictures, things they’re familiar with. This gives comfort and reminds them of their home.
Memories — Set aside one night a week — for us it was Friday nights — for the family to reminisce and share memories. One night, we would bring out all the photo albums, and we’d sit around looking at pictures. Another night we’d have a “Do you remember?” quiz game. This was a lot of fun. Some nights we’d just sit and talk and share memories about people, experiences, places and events. More than two decades later, we still enjoy reminiscing and remembering those days. Your family will also enjoy a meal or dish from the host country. Our children, to this day, still enjoy the local food and snacks.
Friends — Even while they’re making new friends, encourage your children to keep in touch with their friends abroad. I can say a lot about this, but space does not allow. I will say this. Our children needed no encouragement. Back in the day, our monthly landline phone bills were high. Looking back, it was worth every cent because our children just needed to hear that familiar voice as they tried to process their grief and losses. It helped them a lot during that first year. Nowadays, social media and technology are at just about everyone’s disposal, making it very convenient for people to keep in touch.
Life Skills — Your child will no doubt need to learn some new and different life skills when moving back to the passport country. They may feel insecure and unfamiliar with the way things are done, and this could lead to embarrassment in the presence of their peers. For instance, in the United States, everyone pumps their own gas/petrol. Don’t take anything for granted. Show them how and let them do it themselves to gain confidence. I remember the first time my son had to pump gas for our car. He had driven the vehicle but kept putting off pumping gas because he had not done it before. The needle was almost on empty, and he could put it off no longer. My husband was out of town, so I went with my son to the gas station. He was a bit nervous, but he did it! He needed me there for support and affirmation.
A re-entry seminar is a safe place (event) that provides an opportunity for your child or teen to connect with others of similar age and similar experiences. It’s where they can share their stories without feeling out of place. It provides a place where they’ll be understood and gain the inner confidence they need as they try to navigate life in their passport country.
In our final year in the field, we received an invitation to attend a re-entry seminar. This was one event I looked forward to with all my heart, knowing how much we needed this as a family, most of all for our children’s sake. We were fortunate that our children could attend a re-entry program for teens while we attended one for adults. We are forever grateful for this program and the difference it made for all of us, especially in the lives of our children. Do take advantage of re-entry seminars if you have the opportunity.
Helping your child navigate the re-entry transition process may take some time, patience and understanding on your part. The benefits will pay off later on as you see your child blossom and grow into a strong, resilient and self-confident individual. Along the way, you will discover that while you were trying to help them, you were also helping yourself.
Third Culture Kids, 3rd Ed. Growing Up among Worlds by Ruth E. Van Reken, Michael V. Pollock
Raising Up A Generation of Healthy Third Culture Kids: A Practical Guide to Preventive Care by Lauren Wells
Who Moved My Cheese for Kids by Spencer Johnson, M.D., and Christian Johnson.
Swirly by Sara Saunders (author) and Matthew Pierce (illustrator)
Tea with Milk by Allen Say
When Africa Was Home by Karen Lynn Williams and Floyd Cooper
What about you?
Have you experienced transition and reentry? What was helpful during those times?
Share your thoughts in the comments below!