Children and Change

By Carrie Jones 2019-06-27 18:23:23

Moving to Shanghai offers exciting opportunities for kids to explore, grow, and develop

Moving to Shanghai offers exciting opportunities for kids to explore, grow, and develop, but it can also bring unexpected challenges or changes in behaviour. Carrie Jones, LCSW, shares helpful hints about how to ease the transition for kids at any age.

We all adapt differently to change, based on our personality, life experiences, attitude and circumstances. Kids are no exception – no two children will handle the transition of beginning life and school in Shanghai quite the same. However, based on age and developmental stage, there are some common elements parents can watch for and general ways you can help support your child regardless of whether he’s walking into the classroom for the first time, she’s preparing to walk across the graduation stage, or somewhere in between.


Even for preschoolers who are verbal, expressing emotionally complex issues through words is a stretch, so it can be a real challenge to know how these little ones are handling change or what they are thinking and feeling. Even if they can’t articulate their feelings, what they are experiencing is very real, and it’s important to look for and respond to behavioural cues.

You Might Notice:

Acting out. Some children express uncomfortable emotions or seek attention by becoming more “naughty” or aggressive.

Increased clinginess and neediness. For preschoolers, parents tend to be the most important figures in their lives. When everything around them seems to have changed (language, people, culture, routines, physical environment), it is natural for them to respond by relying more heavily than usual on you.

Regression back to previous developmental stages. Some kids will experience temporary set-backs in skills they had previously acquired such as toilet training or speech.

You Might Try:

Offering extra verbal reassurance. More than ever, kids need to hear, “I love you” or other words of affection, comfort, encouragement and affirmation . . . over and over!

Providing extra physical contact. Make time for extra hugs and snuggles; these can be far more reassuring than words to little kids (and big ones, too!).

Elementary Schoolers

Even with well-developed language skills, young children are just learning how to recognize and express their emotions.

You Might Notice:

Somatic symptoms. These are physical symptoms such as tummy aches and headaches that don’t have a medical cause. Even elementary school kids can struggle to verbalize emotions, so these feelings often remain internal and manifest themselves physically.

Sleep difficulties. Some kids have difficulty falling asleep while others find themselves waking frequently. Nightmares or fear of sleeping alone are among the most common manifestations of adjustment issues.

Changes in demeanor or general attitude. A child with a naturally sunny temperament might suddenly seem more moody or grumpy, or a child who used to be brave and outgoing might suddenly be a bit more hesitant and reserved.

You Might Try:

Helping your child maintain contact with loved ones back home. While technology today makes it easy for teens and adults to connect with friends anywhere in the world, kids need help arranging Skype calls or other meaningful ways to stay in touch with family and friends. Try to do this as regularly and consistently as possible.

Story-telling. Kids sometimes aren’t sure how to articulate their feelings or worry that their feelings aren’t normal or okay. Read stories about kids in similar situations or with similar feelings, or use your imagination and make up stories!


The adolescent years are by nature a time of extreme transition, moving from childhood toward adulthood. Add in a transition such as a move to Shanghai and a new school, and some teens may initially have intense reactions.

You Might Notice:

School refusal. Some teens may feel overwhelmed by having to make new friends or adjusting to a new academic system. They may beg and plead to stay home or flat out refuse to go. In fact, this is one of the most frequent adjustment issues.

Changes in academic performance. Many teens encounter a big difference in academic expectations between their previous school and their new school in Shanghai. Whether due to the general adjustment process or increased academic rigor, some teens may experience a decline in their grades or overall school performance. Alternatively, other teens cope with stress and anxiety by hyper-focusing on academics and developing perfectionistic tendencies.

Isolation or withdrawal. Part of a being a teen is relying more and more on friends and peers and less on parents and families, but it can be a challenge, especially initially, for some teens to feel like they can find friends with whom they can relate.

You Might Try:

Listening. It is very important for teens to feel like they can go to their parents and freely express themselves. There is incredible power in a teen feeling like he is truly heard. Avoid trying to rush to “fix things” or offer a solution, and moderate your initial reaction when your teen tells you something you find disturbing.

Helping teens identify support resources. Whether it’s activities to join, a counselor to talk to, or academic support, you play a significant role in helping and empowering teens to find whatever resources they need to positively adjust to life in Shanghai.

Don’t let these possible reactions to adjustment discourage you. Kids are amazingly resilient. The new perspectives and experiences they gain – including the struggles to adjust – will help shape, mold, and mature them and prepare them for whatever other great adventures await in the future.

Top Tips for the Whole Family

  • Maintain perspective. As 10-year-old seasoned expat Luca Lennon wisely observes, “There are a lot of things that are different about life here, but there are way more things that are the same.”
  • Give kids a voice. Children often feel they didn’t have control over the move. As frequently as possible, give kids opportunities to exercise control, such as decorating their bedrooms or helping to plan family trips.
  • Honour old and new. Maintain familiar routines and traditions from home, but also be intentional about establishing special new ones. These aren’t just for holidays or special occasions – new activities and routines make daily life special and more fun.
  • Model a positive attitude. Kids are incredibly perceptive – they are watching you and picking up on your attitudes and behaviours. Practice good self-care as you go through the adjustment and embrace it as a great adventure to share.
  • If you haven’t read Third Culture Kids by David C. Polluck and Ruth E. Van Reken, read it! This book offers tremendous insight into both the challenges and opportunities kids who live abroad may face.