Parenting

We’re emigrating – but our children don’t want to go. What can we do?


I am a European who has been living in London for more than 20 years. During this time, I finished my studies, got a job, met a husband (from another European country), had three children and lived a happy life. The uncertainties surrounding our work environment and this country, combined with great job opportunities for my husband and I, have led us to take the decision to move back to my home country.

This is going to be a big change in our life and we have tried to look at it from many different angles. While we see benefits for ourselves and our children, we have worries about the transition period: how we will adjust to this new environment; whether we will be able to re-establish a happy balance in our family unit; and mostly, whether our children, all under 13, who have made friends here and are reluctant to leave, will be able to cope. Will they lose their sense of identity and their self-esteem in the new school environment? Will they turn into adults who move to different places when challenges arise? Are there any dos and don’ts to consider as a family and as parents?

This is an exciting time, but things are going to happen that you can’t predict. In order to grow into resilient adults, your children will need to learn how to adapt to change, and tolerate even the negative emotions they experience. You have to let them do this.

When you leave something behind, be it a school, a place of work or a country, it is easy to focus on what is being lost, because those are tangible things. It is harder to see what one will gain, yet this is an important learning curve for so many situations to come.

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The don’ts would include not allowing your children to express concerns or have an opinion, or shutting them down when they show emotion. But being overly positive can also be blocking. If you deny them their feelings, eventually they won’t come to you with problems, because they will feel you don’t listen. But it won’t mean the negative feelings have gone.

I asked Hilary Ann Salinger, a psychotherapist, what she thought. “You’re clearly very anxious about the effect on your family dynamic,” she said. “But your anxieties are completely normal and realistic.” She echoed that this is an exciting and positive life stage, and likened it to having a baby – another seismic change you have been through and can probably recall: “You’re excited, but also terrified.” You don’t know what is going to happen, but try to take solace in the fact that, as a family, you will cope together. Have faith in your parenting skills.

Salinger wanted to reassure you that you are in control of your children’s sense of identity: it is formed, she said, within the family unit (which stays static here, albeit in different surroundings), in connective relationships with others, and in how you embrace the outside world. She also said not to fear the “oppositional feelings your children may have. They may be angry if they don’t want to go.” If such conversations ensue, she recommended saying something like: “Yes, I know this is painful for you, but we think it’s the right thing to do.”

If you are very in tune with your children and have raised them in a collaborative environment, being authoritative may feel challenging, and a bit different, but you can do this while still listening. And remembering that you are the adults. I sometimes explain it to my own children by saying that their opinion really matters, but I have a longer-range view of certain things that they may not be able to understand yet. Children find this easier to accept, and tolerate, if they have been listened to in the past and the relationship is not dictatorial.

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Salinger recommended “making the leaving process thorough: make sure they have a good experience of saying goodbye, maybe giving a talk to their classmates about where they’re going”. You can gauge if you think this will be a good idea. Encourage their curiosity about the new place and about any issues that may crop up, but don’t pretend that where you are going is perfect. Reassure them where you can – for example, about staying in touch with friends – but don’t give false promises; that is what they will hang on to.

If you make this a positive experience, there is no reason to think they will move every time they face a challenge. But I think you need to spend a little time untangling your own worries and fears, as well as your children’s.

Send your problem to annalisa.barbieri@mac.com. Annalisa regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence.

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