WISS Today Article

By Douglas Ota, Child Psychologist

In November of 2016, WISS proudly hosted professionals from all around Asia for the OpenApply Admissions conference.  Dr. Doug Ota, led the conference workshops on Transition and Mobility-a very important part of our lives in an international community.  Doug Ota Photo HighRes

Your kids asked me to write this article.

I mean that metaphorically. Mostly.  I haven’t met most of you. But as a psychologist specializing in mobility, I’ve counseled people on the move—people like you and the people you work for—for almost twenty-five years. Whether you’re a parent or a professional, I’ve learned what kids are really saying when they move.  This article gives them a voice.

To grab your attention, you should first know that John Hattie published Visible Learning in 2009, the “largest ever collection of evidence-based research into what actually works in schools to improve learning.” His book comprised the widest study in educational research history.  It combined 52,637 published studies, surveying millions of students worldwide.  Hattie asked this massive stockpile of data one simple question: What actually works to improve student learning?

The result? 138 factors that influence learning, from the most beneficial at the top, down to the most harmful at the bottom.

Guess which factor landed squarely at the bottom, in 138th place, as the most detrimental to student learning outcomes.

That’s right: moving.

It doesn’t have to be this way.  Mobility across cultures can be one of the richest sources of learning and personal growth that life has to offer.  But these benefits are only likely to occur when mobility’s massive challenges are managed well.

This article provides you with 14 tips that can help, phrased as if they’re coming directly from your kids.  After all, they’re the ones who taught me to tell you these things.

Basic Tips

Help us start with goodbye.  Moving abroad has a ‘glamor factor.’  The thrills involved blind many to a quieter, less glamorous reality: moving, at its psychological core, is an experience of loss.  Important people, places, and roles are left behind.  To complicate matters, many people do not expect these feelings of loss.  After the ‘honeymoon phase,’ they’re caught off guard, and left feeling lost and bewildered. The classic text on these topics is Pollock and Van Reken’s Third Culture Kid.  Read it now if you haven’t already.

Show us how to say a clear ‘goodbye,’ so that we’ll be able to say a clear ‘hello.’ Plan goodbye parties and rituals for your child, for your colleagues—even for yourself.  One school in the Netherlands invites students to sign names and messages on a wooden clog to give to each departing student. By saying goodbye well, you’re doing a favor for all involved, because only if people have been helped to do something we all find inherently difficult—like saying goodbye—will they be able to genuinely welcome new people into their lives.  This explains why a goodbye party for yourself is essential: it’s good for you, which is good for your family, and it models a positive coping skill for your children. In my book Safe Passage, I refer to this tip as the “First Law of Transitions.”

Listen to us.  To be helpful, most people think they need to do something.  The stress of moving unleashes powerful feelings.  For a successful experience with mobility, these feelings are going to need to come out.  Do not underestimate the healing power of simply attending to whatever a child is saying.  Try just looking, nodding, offering an occasional “oh?” or “ok,” and nothing else. Having you as an audience is often all they need.

Help us start early.  David Pollock was famous for saying that it takes “six months to pack up your heart and six months to unpack it.”  Start early.  Packing boxes and negotiating with movers is hard, but packing hearts and minds well is even more important.  Start discussing how your kids are feeling about the move far before it actually occurs.  And keep discussing it long after it’s happened. “How are you feeling about the move?” is all the prompting they might need.  Then listen.

If I’m an introvert, remind me I’m not to blame for my personality.  Dealing with mobility well means processing all of the associated emotions well. But personality is a bottleneck.  How quickly one tends to process such emotions has a great deal to do with personality factors.  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.  Conversely, the more introverted, shy, and cautious a person is, the longer he or she will require to process the feelings involved. Practically speaking, this means that we can educate children about the kind of personality they’ve received in their genes, and explain to them that personality is like eye color or quality of vision: it’s something you’re born with.  Introverted, shy, and cautious children need help understanding that their personalities are needed in the world, and that they tend to thrive in certain settings (in nature, creative endeavors, very small groups, etc.).  However, such children need tricks to deal with a life on the road.  (For example, ‘feeling afraid’ could be a cue to use the “deep breath trick.”  Teach them to look for somebody else who’s probably feeling afraid, like somebody standing by themselves.  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.)

Give us some choices!  For many children, the experience of having to move is an exercise in choicelessness.  The Big People seem to decide everything: whether a move is happening, where it’s going to occur, when it’s going to happen, even why.  Human beings seek control over the parameters of their existence.  The long-term absence of control over these parameters can lead to two alternatives, either angry rebellion or learned helplessness. (A word of reassurance to parents of rebellious teens: angry rebellion is healthier than learned helplessness.  The ego is at least fighting for survival, rather than giving up.)  Against a backdrop of so many things that may be out of a child’s control, it becomes important to give youngsters choices about things that reasonably belong in their domain.  Such choices can be large ones, like which school to actually attend, or seemingly minimal ones, like what to wear or what to have for lunch.  Supporting a child’s ability to choose through times when so much for him or her feels out of control helps build confident children.  See Martin Seligman’s The Optimistic Child for more ideas.

Intermediate Tips

Welcome our difficult feelings.  Normal journeys have peaks and valleys.  In my experience counseling kids and families around mobility issues over these last decades, it is the feeling that they don’t have permission to have their negative feelings that leads to trouble.  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. But buried negative feelings pop up unpredictably later in life. When kids are allowed to have their negative feelings (“You’re allowed to have all the feelings you have about this move…”), and when they are encouraged to express such feelings within appropriate bounds (“…and we get it that you’re mad about being here, and that’s fine, but we expect you not to insult anybody in the process”), these feelings get validated and ultimately relax. Negative feelings deserve special attention for the simple reason that positive feelings don’t. Positive feelings are easy.  Anyone can deal with them.  Nobody’s ever needed counseling for feeling happy.

Listen to us reflectively.  Beyond “simple” listening, you can practice reflective listening with kids, which means listening for the core message in what a child or another person is saying.  When you hear the core message (which is like reading between the lines), you repeat it back, perhaps in a tenuous fashion like in a question, to see if you have it right.  If your intention is to truly understand the other person, you cannot go wrong.  Even if you get it wrong, your positive intention will shine through, and the child or other person will likely simply correct you.  For example, if your ten year-old comes home from school, throws his backpack on the floor, and screams, “I hate it here!  The people are stupid!  I was all by myself at lunch again!” then—after taking a deep breath or two—you could say, “Wow.  You are furious with this place and with us.  You sound like you want to go back home right now!”  A ten year-old’s anger might melt into tears at that moment, and you will be able to console him.  The art of reflective listening entails remembering that listening well does not mean agreeing. See Faber and Mazlish’s How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk for more tips on listening well.

Help us pick pivotal people.  Human beings don’t exist in vacuums.  We need to be seen and recognized to feel real and safe.  (If this were not true, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram would not have drawn the billions of devotees they’ve amassed.)  If mobility causes your child to feel his or her identity has been erased, and if much of this sense of erasure stems from the loss of trusted audiences, then the trick is to maintain a trusted audience for your child’s story.  Parents are, of course, the key members in a child’s audience.  But in the world of mobility, parents are moving objects as well!  The trick is to enlist people who aren’t moving, people who are staying put.  Hence the term “pivotal people”: these are people around whom your child’s story can rotate.  Invite key neighbors, teachers, coaches, friends, aunts, uncles, grandparents—anyone who is not moving who has been important in your child’s life—to be a “pivotal person” for your son or daughter.  Ask them to drop a line once a month for six months or a year, just to check in on your son or daughter, ask how it’s going, and hear about the new life.

Give us traditions, and maintain them.  One of the most disorienting experiences in the world is to sit in a train and feel like you’re leaving the station, only to realize it’s the adjacent train that’s leaving.  Evolutionarily, we are wired to assume we operate in a stationary landscape.  (After all, the nearby boulders and caves of our ancestors didn’t spontaneously move by themselves.) The experience of mobility, however, shifts everything in the landscape.  In such a situation, the human psyche desperately gropes for fixed ground, for things that have remained the same.  Most families maintain some continuity in space by bringing furniture, pictures, and sacred objects with them.  But continuity in time is equally important.  It can be cultivated by doing certain things you used to do at the same time in the new place.  Perhaps you used to kick a ball with your child after work. Perhaps your family enjoyed an elaborate brunch every Sunday morning.  Perhaps you went to the movies on the first Friday of the month.  By creating such traditions and taking them with you wherever you go, you create continuity for your family in both space and time.  See The Intentional Family by William Doherty for more ideas.

Remind us that we can be thrown into transition while staying put.  Everything this article has discussed is true for those who get left behind.  And this is the nature of the expatriate existence: people we care for leave us regularly, throwing us into transition even though we haven’t packed a single box or suitcase.  Any of the tips discussed here could be useful when your child’s best friend moves away.  (To say nothing of the real possibility of that happening two or three years in a row!)

Remember that you can only help us with things you’ve mastered yourself. If you doubt this statement, consider a time when you tried to explain something to someone that you didn’t really understand well yourself.  You can’t do it—at least not well.  The same holds true for feelings.  And the most crucial feeling at stake in everything said so far is the feeling of loss.  If you are not good at coping with losses, or if you have unresolved losses in your own background, then implementing some of these earlier tips will prove challenging.  Speaking to trusted friends or loved ones about these issues, or seeking counseling if necessary, may prove helpful.  After all, if you can master these challenging spots in your own narrative, then you can better help others—including your children or the children in your care—with their challenging spots.

In order to grow successfully through a challenge, people need adequate support and guidance.  The reason Hattie found in Visible Learning that mobility harms learning outcomes is not because mobility is inherently harmful.  It’s not.  What is harmful is facing people—particularly children—with a massive challenge without offering them sufficient support.  It’s like offering to take people swimming on a sunny day, without telling them they’re going to be crossing the English Channel.

Talk with your kids about their losses and difficult feelings.  Be straight with them about the fact that both challenges and opportunities are at stake—and not just the latter.  Be part of the trend that will lift mobility from 138th place in Hattie’s data, and place it more where it belongs: as a tremendous growth opportunity that affords children the chance to learn to truly understand people from all walks of life.

International education needs this kind of change.  The world needs it even more.  This is what your kids are asking for help with.

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About the Author:

Doug Ota was raised in La Jolla, California, the son of a Japanese father and an English mother.  Their separation when he was three showed Ota how to grow up between worlds.  The death of his brother and step father trained Ota in grief.  He has made a career out of wondering where he—and others—belong. 

Ota migrated east to study philosophy of religion at Princeton University, then further east to study Clinical Child Psychology at the University of Leiden in The Netherlands, going on to become a registered child psychologist with the Dutch Psychological Association. For many years, he worked as a High School counselor at the American School of The Hague. He now works in private practice.