“My Family Moved to the Sea, but in Two Years I Never Swam, and My Parents Are Always Busy”: Family Traumas in Emigration

Many of relocants are married couples. Psychologist Galina Bobko told Anywhere Club about some of the challenges that families may experience when moving to another country.

Galina Bobko

— Your family can make it easier to endure the difficulties of adaptation after a relocation, but problems, conflicts, quarrels, and relationship challenges are quite common among those who have moved. Mutual support is very important, but it may not always be enough to withstand the pressure of relocation challenges.

There is evidence that marital status, and the presence of children can affect the emotional state of relocators. According to these studies, the level of emotional problems increases over time. The most stable position is in the following categories (in descending order): 

  • Couple without children;
  • Couple with children;
  • Divorced without children;
  • Those who raise a child alone.
  • The support of a partner can make it easier to go through all of the stages of adaptation, but does not protect against conflicts.

    Some causes of family problems after relocation

    Occupational unemployment of one of the partners

    — In couples, this seems to be more commonly experienced by women. Frequently, one of the partners quickly adapts, learns the language, socializes, and — as a result — the overall level of family integration in the new country looks quite positive. If the other partner, who is slower to integrate, is not included in the family’s transition, however, the differences between the couple can become a heavy burden. This raises the question of whether the first partner will have enough patience and strength to wait until the other partner acclimates.

    Sometimes, the feeling of loneliness and isolation in the partner who is slower to adapt can cause problems with alcohol, or other destructive behaviors. It may also result in anger, envy, or resentment directed at the partner who seems to be adapting more quickly, says Oksana Korzun in her book “How to Move to Another Country and Not Die From Homesickness”.

    Changing family roles

    — With changes in the environment, infrastructure, routine, and daily workload in the family, the traditional roles and responsibilities of the various family members may change as a result. Suppose one spouse finds a job with a longer-than-usual commute to the office, while the other spouse has the opportunity to work from home. Perhaps one of the spouses will start earning more or less than usual. These situations can result in upheaval within the family, which can be uncomfortable for all of its members.

    Focusing exclusively on the child’s happiness

    — Another challenging scenario can arise when parents, with the best of intentions, do everything to make the childrens’ adaptation as comfortable as possible, and forget about themselves. The children may quickly integrate, learn a new language, and make friends as a result. They may then find themselves having to take over some parental functions, sometimes feeling ashamed that their parents have not developed as well as the children have.

    Potential difficulties faced by children

    — Starting a new life in another country is difficult for every member of the family, not just the parents. Choosing a school, completing documents, and getting to know the teachers and parents of the children with whom your child will study are all important and difficult parental tasks.

    Sometimes, overwhelmed parents have unrealistic expectations about how easily their children will acclimate, expecting that they will settle in to a new life without the kinds of stresses faced by the parents. In practice, such magic does not always happen. Left alone with an entirely new and unfamiliar group of peers, a child may withdraw and wish for a return to the family’s former home, life, and friends. A relocation can be particularly challenging for adolescents, who face potential rejection by their new peer group.

    In an emigration situation, the parents are experiencing their own emotional reactions and may not be capable of offering the kind of support their child needs and is used to receiving. This can magnify the impact of the changes on the children.

    The situation can be further complicated by the fact that the child may not have a rational or emotional understanding of why the family moved. “My family moved to the sea, but in two years I never swam, and my parents are always busy,” complains a young teenager, now living in France.

    Remember that children do not have the same emotional resources that adults do. Self-esteem, social experience, the ability to establish emotional contacts, and overcome difficult situations – generally, all of these qualities develop as we mature, and it is unrealistic to expect children to have the same capabilities as adults. As a parent, setting the tone for how the family adapts, and providing support for the other family members can play a critical role in how your children adjust. Set an example as best you can – show your children how you cope with difficulties, without expecting too much of them.

    And remember that your child’s mental and emotional states are affected by any conflicts between their parents and the new or former country, which can impact how smoothly and well your child adapts to a new society. The absence of roots and a lack of identification with the new country, or a cynical attitude towards it, can interfere with the process of healthy integration. It can be helpful to explain to your child that they still have a connection with the language, relatives, and culture of their former country, and that they can still learn about, enjoy, and respect the place where you live now. “There is a lot I don’t like in this country, but I always remember that I moved here, so I play by the local rules,” Yuriy, 50 years old, 13 years in Montenegro.

    — The formula for successful family adaptation is simple and complex at the same time. Having family, and others you are close to, nearby can certainly help you cope with difficult situations that you will experience as a part of your relocation. But your successful navigation of the stages of integration also depends on how ready you and your family members are to patiently accept your new situation. It can help to understand that you, as representatives of your family, nationality, and culture, can bring with you and preserve your history, traditions, and values in your new country, while learning to appreciate what it has to offer.

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