That’s the question I always ask my clients when they come to me to discuss relocation. I work with families to help them relocate to Singapore and around the world. When I talk about relocation, what I mean is ‘the act of moving to a new place and establishing your home there.’
We know that relocation happens on a huge scale in the world. In 2015, 3.3 per cent of the world’s population lived outside their country of origin, which equates to 244 million people. For many of those 244 million people, I’m pretty sure their relocations would have been a stressful experience. I’m sure you only need to reflect upon your own relocation experience to remember the tensions involved in leaving everything you know to go to a new house in a new country to make new friends, in the context of new culture with new routines and lots of uncertainty. In one move, every single part of your life changes.
Despite the stress of all these changes, when I ask families if they feel prepared, many people assure me they are. They point to their long to-do lists, which include things like packing up belongings, finding a new house and deciding where children need to go to school. Of course, all of these things are essential to moving. In fact, you can’t relocate without ticking those items off the list! For most people, the logistics of a move tend to be straightforward. There is usually a clearly defined start point and a very clear end. Once you’ve ticked an item off the checklist, it’s completed and you usually don’t have to think about it again.
However, it’s vital to remember that establishing your home in a new location is way more than just logistics.
‘Home’ is also an emotional concept; one where it’s important to feel happy, safe, settled and comfortable. Despite this, the emotional aspect of relocation is often neglected. This is a problem because the relocation process is so emotionally stressful. Helen, a teacher I worked with told me, “I’ve moved countries before. I should be coping better with these feelings.” The fact remains that relocation is emotionally stressful, whether it’s your first move or your latest move. Practice and prior experience doesn’t necessarily reduce the emotional stress.
There’s a commonly held assumption that children are naturally resilient, and they’ll simply bounce back from the stress of a relocation. While some children are naturally more resilient than others, it’s important that we don’t view high resilience as the default for every child. This is certainly not the case. Instead, it’s important to recognise that everyone’s levels of resilience can rise and fall, depending on what’s happening and the coping strategies being used.
Many of the children and young people I work with share that their parents encourage them only to talk about the positive aspects of the move. In my experience, this is because parents tend to be unsure of the best approach to deal with the challenging or negative feelings around relocation, and sometimes even worry that discussing those feelings will make them worse. This is a very common misconception! It’s helpful to know that talking about challenging feelings doesn’t make those feelings stronger. The reality is that discussing feelings actually helps children to process these feelings in a constructive way.
In short, families often don’t realise the emotional aspect of relocation is a problem until they hit an emotional speedbump. The reality for most people is that relocation is an emotionally challenging process. It can take months and months to feel at home in a new place.
The research literature shows the negative emotional impact of the relocation process is often substantial, particularly for children. Pollock and Van Reken (2009) point out that, “by the time they reach 18, most globally mobile children have experienced more grief and loss than many adults do in their lifetime.”
The impact is also long-term. Unresolved grief, where those feelings of grief have not been addressed, is one of the biggest issues facing Third Culture Kids (children who have grown up for a significant period of time outside of their passport country, or countries). What make unresolved grief even more challenging to resolve is that its effects may only become evident as those children reach their late twenties or thirties.
This negative emotional impact of grief is further compounded by a general acceptance by parents that parental guilt and child grief are inescapable aspects of living a mobile lifestyle (McLachlan, 2007).
After I’ve shared this information with families, I ask if they still think they are prepared. The usual answer is, “We thought we were, but we’re actually not.”
So how do families ensure they are emotionally prepared for relocation?
This is the focus of my work: providing emotional wellbeing for relocation, which is key to reducing stress and offering constructive strategies for addressing guilt and grief. Emotional wellbeing ensures a smoother relocation, whether it’s to Singapore, back home or anywhere else around the globe.
About Dr Sarah Whyte
Consultant, Speaker, Facilitator & ICF Coach Through her innovative, research-based hello/goodbye programme, Sarah offers families a practical, powerful framework to support their emotional wellbeing throughout the whole relocation process. With a degree in psychology, a doctorate in education and a deep knowledge of the expatriate experience, Sarah is the leading expert on Third Culture Kids (TCKs) in Asia. She is one of only a handful of people worldwide to hold a doctorate in this field of study.
Sarah’s experience extends across her work with a range of organisations in South East Asia, from international schools to banks, insurance and tech companies.
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