Psychology of relocating: How to help children cope and excel in a new environment

Relocating from one place to another may not be a big deal for parents (or adults in general), but it has a tremendous psychological impact on children. Adults usually celebrate relocation because it involves job promotion, improvement in working conditions and a better prospect for career growth. One would not go through the ordeal of uprooting if it did not have a significant payoff.

Difference in psychological response

Adults, having had their needs for belonging and love fulfilled through marriage and/or having a more stable companion, move on to actively pursuing achievement and growth needs. They invariably pay little or no attention to other basic needs such as food, clothing, shelter, sex, love, etc. Adults tend to take these for granted as they are readily available and/or purchased as long as one has a stable income.

Children on the other hand, experience just the opposite. For them, achievement is a secondary need. In fact, many children do not understand why adults are overly engrossed in thinking about and doing everything they can to succeed (Note: children’s perception of “success” as modeled by parents is having lots of money and being able to buy whatever one desires, when he/she wants them).

Hence the motivators that encourage parents and children to adjust and function effectively in a new environment are different. Often, parents expect children to fit in because they could do so. On the contrary, parents should understand that the psychological experiences of their children are considerably different from their own. In fact, children perceive past, present and future realities differently. Sometimes, there are no obvious or clear cut explanation to what and how children think and feel. As mysterious as this may sound, parents could still learn to understand the psychological dynamism experienced by children in such a circumstance.

Existential origin

Relocating is one of the most devastating events in a child’s life. It could be perceived as a big blow that shatters all that he/she has believed in thus far. Children spend a lot of time formulating their own understanding of everything around them, including people and how they relate to them as well as each other, hence establishing and believing in a unique sense of meaning of life. Relocating creates a situation in which a child’s existing meaning of life comes under question. It takes a considerable amount of time and experiencing life in a new physical and social context before he/she comes up with another unique sense of meaning. This sense of meaning is a pre-requisite for effective functioning in all other areas of life.

Since a number of variables are involved in the process of establishing a stable sense of meaning of life in a new environment, children could easily spiral into experiencing loneliness, depression and apathy. As the severity of the situation gets worse, the child withdraws from people, activities and school. He starts living in a different world, construed purely in his mind, often unchecked against reality. He questions everything new and may become skeptical about all that used to be meaningful. Consequently, the child develops irreversible thinking patterns that debilitate normal functioning. While parents are pre-occupied with achievement and career advancement, the child is pre-occupied with emotional insecurities to the extent that it affects his or school performances.

How to help?

Parents and teachers of children who have relocated need to be more deliberate in making the transition smooth. Often, adults talk about making the transition smooth, but hardly do anything concrete to understanding the psyche of children before executing a series of actions. Parents and teachers could help to put this off at an early stage if they give serious thoughts to some of the following guidelines.

Be there, literally!

Give the child a sense that “we are in this together!” Children who feel that they are not being dumped in a new environment feel more connected to their significant adults and may cope with changes more realistically. Their feelings about the change should be explored on a regular basis. Questions should be asked about how they are coping with the new arrangements. They should be given opportunities to indicate if there are things that should be done differently. Listening is the first step to alleviating the dire effects of relocating. The second step requires that parents and teachers use the information they gather from children to respond more constructively to their psychological needs in a timely manner.

Making friends

Adults should see to it that children do make friends in the new environment. Sometimes, simply telling the child, “go make yourself some new friends” will not suffice. Parents and teachers should carefully select and introduce potential friend(s) to the child being relocated. This is done by matching the child’s personality patterns with that of other children in the school and/or neighborhood. The potential friend(s) should have common values, attitudes and preferences if positive connections are to be made. Ultimately, every relationship forged with a new friend should boost the child’s self-image. This is accomplished when the new friend(s) consistently provide favorable feedback and keep away from passing demeaning comments. This gives the child the courage and cognitive balance needed to form his or her new sense of meaning of life.

Getting the priorities right

Lastly, adults should acknowledge and tell children that achievement is not more important than psychological and social adjustments. This is a concrete sign of empathy. Children appreciate it when parents and teachers understand what’s important to them. There should be no pressure put on the child to perform and achieve before he or she gets back the lost psychological and cognitive balance. Once proper psychological adjustments are made, the child is back on track to excel at home and school.