The sounds of a door slamming or a foot stomping are not uncommonly heard in families everywhere. As a safe place to express our needs, home can bear witness to a range of behaviours and emotions. When we relocate to Hong Kong, our new homes will see the joy and bear the brunt of the adjustment process.
The effects of moving are well known to all – packing up, shutting down, setting up and settling in all take time and energy. Often the adrenalin of the change and excitement of a new place mask the underlying stress, and Hong Kong is certainly full of people, activity and adventure to distract us. The demands may initially have a positive effect on us, as we feel the satisfaction of rising to daily small challenges and are stimulated by change and the excitement it provides. However, alongside the personal growth, eventually signs of strain may emerge in parents and children alike. Acknowledging the emotions we may be experiencing, as well as our strengths in getting here, allow us to observe the toll a move may have taken.
A lot of parents find, either immediately or over the first 18 months, that their mood may drop or that their level of stress and anxiety may increase. There is a constant balancing in any family of the demands placed on it with the family’s inherent capabilities and strengths.Eventually it may be the case that demands pile up and start to exhaust our capabilities.
The demands include that original major stressor of moving to a different country, along with the stress of finding a new home, starting a new job, starting a new school and establishing your new roles. Many experience a change in role and expectations that may take a moment to incorporate. This should be rightly recognised as a life transition in its own right, with all the processing that this involves. Those who move for a job have to adjust to the new role and different work expectations. If you are working in the home, you may choose to have a helper, which can be both liberating and undermining as you lose some self-efficacy and purpose. Children have to find a new peer group and often adjust to a new curriculum and school routine. These factors can become a strain over time.
Alongside this are the daily hassles experienced in negotiating the new environment; how to get around, the weather, where to buy things, forms to fill in and communication with others. As well as those, you will also experience the everyday concerns of finding time with a partner, managing your health, managing a workload and completing homework.
As each person in the family unit grapples with their own issues, it of course affects the family as a whole. This can be felt in the emotions and behaviour of all. Younger children may be enthusiastic about a move, if a little anxious. Teenagers, however, may be more resentful at being moved from friends and school. They are already negotiating an important stage of development as they work to think more broadly and find their own role in society, separate from family. A move can force them to rely more heavily on the family system. An open channel of communication is critical so that parents can both support them and scaffold them out into the world.
Drawing on capabilities and resources is important in order to mitigate some of the effects of relocation. Connecting with social networks is vital. Schools, clubs or interest groups provide an immediate social connection in a generally very open Hong Kong environment. Joining a group including others also new to Hong Kong offers the opportunity to feel understood and to share relevant experiences. Luckily, there are always many others at the same stage of relocation as you!
There are many ways to support your children with the changes they experience. Listening to each other within the family is vital; not simply cheering each other on, but also acknowledging how things might be tough. Providing children with a consistent learning environment, a consistent routine and open communication can support them by removing some uncertainty. How well children adjust to school has a positive relationship to how well they adjust overall, so good communication with school is key. As parents, we work to find that balance between letting our children be independent and making sure that specific support is in place for them at school as required.
There is a lot to adjust to in your relocation to Hong Kong and it is understandable that it may have a more significant impact on some members of the family. Psychologists understand this from a biological, psychological and social framework. For each individual, a combination of biological factors (such as your genetics or temperament), psychological factors (such as your thoughts about a move, emotional response and behaviour) and social stressors (such as your relationships with peers and family, and your family circumstances) can combine to trigger a decline in mood. The trigger may be a social conflict, family crisis, identity crisis or work stress, but it may be underpinned by the ongoing strain of moving country. When you are under a lot of strain or pressure, it does not take as much to trigger a more extreme emotional response.
If changes in mood extend over more than two to four weeks and begin to impact directly on your daily existence, then it may be time to seek some more specific help. So if you notice that your sleep is disrupted, your appetite has changed, activities are giving you less pleasure or you are avoiding situations that make you anxious, it may be that the strain of relocation has piled up and it is time to pay attention to your own inner resources, as well as seek some help. Approaching your family doctor or psychologist can help identify what extra support will be most helpful for you.
Children often find it difficult to communicate emotions and experiences with words, and may not clearly understand what is happening themselves. As parents, we need to observe their behaviour carefully in order to understand the function it may be serving. The behaviour itself can be a communication. Sometimes, those at their most unloveable will need the most love. Are they moody, withdrawn, negative, fidgety, tearful, stamping and stomping, or experiencing somatic symptoms? Is this a change from before? Then it may be time to consult more widely.
The benefits of such a big and bold move are plenty, too. People moving to Hong Kong are often self-selecting as those with an adventurous and open-minded outlook. The opportunities to explore a new culture, learn a new language and to travel are great. As parents, we are aiming to create worldly individuals who are global in their outlook. Whether we stay in Hong Kong, return to our home country, or move on again, a depth of knowledge and experience will be available to our children as they find their way through – and their role in – society. Relocation, with all its challenges, is an opportunity for enjoyment and growth through new experience. Experience the joy and look after yourself.