“I don’t want to leave my friends! I don’t know anyone back there. Why are we going? Why don’t we stay?”
“My job ends next month. We have to leave,” says his dad.
Jonathan looks at his mum.
“Mum, is it for sure?”
“But why did we do all that hard work if we now have to go back? How come you never talked to me about it before?” exclaims Jonathan.
“We only got confirmation yesterday!”
Jonathan slams the door and goes to his room.
Debbie, 10 and little Stan, 6 haven’t said a word yet.
The parents look at each other. Tough call.
“And you guys, how do you feel? We’re going to live closer to grand-ma and grand-pa.”
Debbie shrugs her shoulders. “I don’t know. I don’t want to change school but I’m happy to visit grand-ma. She always plays with me and I love her cakes!”
“Stan, you haven’t said anything.” Stan keeps on playing with his Legos. He doesn’t seem to care.
The parents are puzzled.
Three children, three different stages of development, three different reactions.
Moving abroad or repatriating are big changes. They deeply affect all family members. They’re not easy decisions to make.
How can you be sure as a parent that you’re doing the right thing?
You feel torn between returning to your home country and cutting your children off from their friends, their activities, their school. Sure, in some cases, you have no choice: if your contract is terminated for example, you HAVE to go back home.
You know that those experiences abroad – if successfully handled – will give your kids a wealth of skills for life, but your heart aches when you see them suffering.
In those difficult moments, you want to be at your best.
Drawing on the work of Francoise Dolto, paediatrician and psychoanalyst who devoted her life to listening to and understanding children through all their stages of development, I’ve included some useful and universal basic principles to guide your actions.
Let’s first define what it means to ‘do the right thing’.
Dolto mentions that in difficult situations the point is not to make the child happy, but to keep the focus on fostering a dynamic for his/her healthy structural development.
And a healthy development is more often than not built with hostility from the child.
Take the example of a kid who wants to sleep in the same bed as their parents. Saying no doesn’t make them happy, but it’s essential for their healthy development.
Talking to the children and giving an explanation that goes beyond the obvious reason of the move (mum or dad lost their job) is essential.
Children think for a long time that their parents are omnipotent, that they can move when and how they fancy. It’s important to underline the constraints you face as adults too.
Generally speaking, people want to avoid conflicts but it’s the conflicts that are formative when they are out in the open.
What generates dramas for the future, is what didn’t cause dramas as a child: what couldn’t be said and couldn’t be handled in the moment.
Repatriation, like any other expat assignment, is a move.
Allow time and space for your children to grieve. Grieving is unique to each person and children grieve too.
Even if they seem forgetful or don’t shed tears, you shouldn’t assume that they’re not feeling deep sadness.
But repatriation is not like any other expat move.
“We’re going back home” can be so confusing.
What does it really mean for children who don’t remember the time they spent in their home country?
How is it true for families who relocate to the home country, but don’t return to their original house, nor their previous neighbourhood?
What does it entail for adults like you who left decades ago?
Pitfall #1 – You already know the place: You may be tempted to rush the process or not dedicate as much attention as you would for another move.
And so may your children. When you took them on holidays to visit family, friends, cities, monuments, natural sites, you gave them a sense of what the country was about. But it’s one thing to visit for a few weeks time, to be a tourist in your passport country, another is to live there, go to school and interact daily with family and local people.
Dolto asserts that children need continuity on 3 levels: their environment, their social network, their sources of affection.
Going back to your home country will bring disruptions in at least two dimensions: the place is different and social interactions will be highly modified.
Tip: Avoid any additional disruption. It’s not a good idea to decide that your child should stop thumb sucking for example.
Pitfall #2 – You may be forcing on your children an identity that they don’t have.
You’ve spent years teaching your children about your home country. Abroad, you tried to re-create the atmosphere, the dishes, to pass on the traditions, the values, the language, the culture. You told them about your childhood, about the school system, about the pros and the cons of the mentality, the political system, the welfare situation.
Now you’re finally going to let them experience the REAL thing!
It’s both exciting and scary.
What if they don’t like it?
What if they find they don’t belong?
What if they don’t identify with their ‘home’ country?
Chances are … they’ll experience culture shock and they’ll feel awkward among their peers: they have the passport but not the shared experiences and the pop culture attached to it.
“Sorry I don’t know this TV show. Last year, I climbed Kilimanjaro with my parents. We lived in Tanzania.”
Hard to relate to your schoolmates who’ve never left the country. It’s just weird.
They may shame themselves about the language, not being able to master it as a ‘local’ or using ‘odd idioms’. They don’t stand out physically but they experience massive culture shock (not really reverse culture shock because they don’t remember or never lived in the country of origin).
They’re hidden immigrants. They seem invisible: they’re not seen so they can’t be heard.
Tip: Maintain the contact. Be present and lend an attentive ear WITHOUT judging, commenting, fixing, criticizing, denying, justifying, arguing however hard this may be!
Pitfall #3 – You think you know the country but you’re destabilized, too
Children and parents are not equal in repatriation.
You’ve called your home country ‘home’ but your children never lived there or don’t have any memories.
This is a totally different dynamic for you and your family.
In all the previous moves, when you went to a country as an expat family, all of you would be ‘equal’ aka equally ignorant: not knowing culture, language, customs from that country, being lost, surprised, puzzled as much as your kids. Now in your home country, you’re really supposed to know… while you may feel lost and out of place as well.
Children who could understand that you didn’t know things in other countries may be puzzled and frightened that you don’t feel you belong.
Where is home then?
What does it mean?
Repatriation can shatter all illusions of ever having a place that you can call home.
Now, over to you. I’m curious to know how you’ve handled this special move.
What did you find most difficult with your kids?