A moving story: How to prepare for a family relocation

The end of the school year is when many families choose to leave the UAE. We look at the psychology of coping with a big change.

Tej Rae with her daughter Olive and son Theo, preparing to move from Dubai to Italy. There are plenty of ways to help children adjust to their new life. Anna Nielsen for The National
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The doorbell is ringing. It might be someone interested in your refrigerator, a moving-company rep coming to give an estimate, or a friend you haven't seen in six months stopping by for a final coffee. Half of your books are in boxes and the other half are on the floor. The question "Are you excited?" has been lobbed at you too many times to count – or answer with any confidence. You clear the artwork off the fridge, readying it for sale, and it looks just as it did when you first arrived. Its bareness stops your children in their tracks. The blank gleam of a major appliance has made the upcoming move real.

With the school year drawing to a close, and especially in the current financial climate, an increasing number of expats are making plans for relocation, either back home or to a new post. In my family’s case, it’s the latter: we’re moving to Italy.

“What are you most worried about?” I ask my 12-year-old son about our impending relocation.

“Making friends,” he says in a heartbeat. Amid all the logistics of finding a school and selling our car, there are emotional needs that require attention – children’s, as well as your own.

“Moving can have a strong psychological impact on children and this varies by age and other important elements such as parents’ attachment, family stability and frequency of moves,” explains Dr Valeria Risoli, a clinical psychologist who treats children, adolescents, families and adults at her practice in Jumeirah, ­Dubai. “[Children] can be absolutely excited to move or extremely sad to leave what they built in their life, and worried for what is waiting for them. In general, the younger your child is, the easier it is for her/him to leave a place and arrive at a new one. The older they are, and the deeper the bond they develop with their place and people and habits, the more painful the move can be.”

For a smoother transition, many counsellors and psychologists help families to "build a RAFT", an acronym for the ­emotional stages we experience when ­moving. The paradigm was developed by American sociologist ­David Pollock and Ruth Van ­Reken, authors of Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds.

RAFT stands for reconciliation, affirmation, farewells and thinking destination. The first part, reconciliation, calls on the person leaving to make amends and resolve any conflicts. Making the time to affirm what others have meant to you is the next part of getting ready to leave. Farewells can take the form of parties, coffees and cards for your friends and colleagues, but also include a final visit to a place, a final favourite meal, as well as other activities that are particular to your country of residence – for example, dune bashing in the UAE. The last step, thinking destination, invites you to research and plan for the new location, including learning a language where needed.

“To RAFT” is also used as shorthand by counselling professionals to describe the stages of transition most of us experience during a move, as well as a reminder to take time to listen and acknowledge feelings of loss, frustration, and sadness – as in the slightly sardonic: “Are you RAFTing?”

Adults and children share the same emotional scale; the difference is that children may not describe their grief in words; instead it can manifest in tantrums, loss of appetite or a lack of interest in school.

At the American School of Dubai, a workshop for 37 departing children was held for the first time this year. Drawing on the RAFTing model, those leaving the school were required to attend. Michelle Rath, a high-school counsellor, Fulbright scholar and holder of a doctorate, led the 45-minute session with other counsellors. It was designed to give the students tools to deal with their impending move.

Students were presented with a “barometer” of typical emotions the transition induces: sadness about leaving friends, frustration when making new friends happens slowly, anger with old friends for not keeping in touch, anxiety about losing one’s role in school or class. To help students plan their responses, Rath and her fellow counsellors reminded the participants that it takes a few months to settle in anywhere. They were encouraged to take risks and get involved in their new schools. “Wallowing can be detrimental,” Rath reminded the students.

After sharing their feelings with the group, students were asked to do the same with their parents, and to remember to ask for help if they hit an emotional “low”. Afterwards, Rath was surprised when initially resistant students thanked her.

A similar session was offered for parents, some of whom were experiencing their first overseas post. Rath observed that the same strategies she recommended for children were just as important for the parents, who were reminded that it’s OK to ask for help.

“What adults need is the same,” Rath said, “but what they get is very different.” A school offers a safe arena for a child, while a newly transplanted parent might find herself adrift without a ready-made community.

Dr Risoli counsels parents “to be open and honest with your children and reassure them. You have to actively listen to your child. In other words, you have to show your interest in how they feel and explain to them how you feel as well. Ask them open questions and rephrase what they say to help them understand you know how they feel. If you involve them in the process of deciding how and what to do, they will feel more reassured and secure.”

Maybe this works for others, but in my home, attempts at therapy with my own children are headed off at the pass. “What are the reasons we’re moving house?” I asked my 9-year-old daughter the other day, to see how she was processing the uprooting of our lives after four years.

“Reasons,” she replied, with an impudent grin.

Many children, like my own, have an extra set of antennae for when adults are trying to get them to talk about their feelings. While RAFTing is a useful concept, it won’t necessarily be embraced in its raw form, especially with tweens and adolescents.

But a child who sees their parent(s) making overtures to make new friends; naming feelings – especially the negative ones; finding a way to be patient with a new language and unfamiliar culture; and asking for help when they need it is going to tend towards similar coping mechanisms.

Modelling desired behaviours for your children can help a parent who is dealing with her own “unresolved grief” from the move. But if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. One mother based in Dubai for the past 20 years recalls that when she moved her three children from Seattle, they were homesick and mopey. At first, she responded to their complaints with reminders about all the benefits the UAE had to offer. “Look, we have a pool,” she would tell them. “We live close to the mall.” Her suggestions didn’t have the desired effect. One day, worn out and longing for home herself, she answered her children’s concerns about what they missed from home with a confession: me too. Startled and finally heard, her children’s misgivings about their new home started to slip away.


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