Can you believe it is almost the end of April? Depending on which hemisphere you reside, schools are returning from their Spring or Autumn Break. Students are either preparing for the final run into the end of the academic year followed by a long Summer vacation or for mid-year assessments followed by a shorter Winter holiday. If they are students in an International School or a school with high mobility, they are also preparing for something else at this time of year. Goodbye.
For members of the globally mobile community, April and October are the months on the emotional calendar when friends tend to announce that they are leaving. Leaving is a process, not an event and begins the moment you learn of a departure – whether it is your own or that of a friend. You have already begun the subconscious loosening of ties to people, places and possessions.
I will never forget the day a student of mine arrived at school in floods of tears. After much coercing, I finally got to the bottom of his dilemma. Nathan’s* Dad had announced the night before that their family was on the move. It was just too much for this young 9 year old who had already experienced 5 moves in his short life. We talked for a while about many things associated with this news – what a kind and caring friend he was and that his new friends will value these qualities in him, how Skype can keep him connected to his friends here and more. With a deep sigh and a half-hearted smile, he eventually left my side to join the class on the mat at my feet. Only he didn’t sit on the mat with the other children. In a visual representation of my earlier statement about the subconscious loosening of ties, Nathan sat off the mat at the back of the class. The separation had begun. In order to protect himself, Nathan had begun the leaving process by physically removing himself from the connectedness of his peers sitting all together, on the mat, in our classroom.
At least Nathan’s Dad told him they were on the move so that he could work through the emotions associated with departure and leave well so that he could enter the new destination well. In my meetings with schools in Europe and Asia of late, a disturbing theme is emerging – parents who don’t want their children to know they are leaving. I understand that whilst negotiations are being finalised, and there is a possibility the move may fall through, parents don’t want to unduly worry their children. Once the move is confirmed however, it is very important that children are given as much time as possible to work through the leaving process. At the Families in Global Transitions Conference I attended in Amsterdam last month, research tabled by Dr Janneke Muyselaar-Jellema reinforced the need to prepare children for departure, to place them in a position to succeed in the classroom and in life. Whilst interviewing Adult Third Culture Kids, she asked the participants to outline their advice for families with children making international moves. The participant’s responses included:
- “Prepare your children for every move. Don’t (just) tell them a month in advance. Make them part of the process. It helps with processing the move.”
- “Don’t underestimate the effect that moving around has on children emotionally.”
- “When I was 11 years old my parents asked me if I would accompany them on the next move to Sweden. It made me feel that my opinion counted.”
- “Help children with their goodbyes.”
Wise words from those who have gone before us…their “test” can become our test-imony for today**. It is important that we give children time to process their emotions, time to say goodbye. Whilst visiting schools in London, I had the privilege of sitting down with Shalini*, a newly arrived student whose passport says she is of Indian heritage but most of her life has been lived in South East Asia. Shalini had been a Student Ambassador at her previous school so as part of their Transitions Program, she had been trained to know the importance of “goodbye” for those leaving but also for those staying. She strongly believed in Douglas Ota’s First Law of Transition – You have to say a clear goodbye in order to say a clear hello.*** She had helped plan the Farewell Ceremony & other Goodbye events at her international school and she had said her goodbyes to her own departing friends. With just two weeks of Summer Vacation left however, Shalini’s Dad announced that the family was moving to the UK, immediately (thus highlighting exactly who is the most powerful stakeholder in a globally mobile child’s education). Unfortunately for her, all of Shalini’s school friends were away so she was unable to say goodbye to anyone. She felt that this had a significant impact on her ability to settle into her new host country. She was struggling. She also felt that her friends in her former host country were struggling too. They had not been given time to grieve well together.
Nathan, Shalini and Dr Janneke Muyselaar-Jellema’s research all reinforce the fact that saying goodbye is important. Too many times I have seen Third Culture Kids inhibited in their learning and ability to develop and maintain friendships because they are emotionally traumatized by the transient nature of their lives. Anger, bitterness, rebellion, depression and physical ailments are just a few of the side effects but this doesn’t need to be the case. By giving each family member time to work through the leaving process (see steps for success here), we can ensure that the challenges faced by leaving or farewelling those who are leaving, will not be overwhelming or traumatic but springboards for growth for each of us.***
*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.
Photo Credit: FireElf