Moving Internationally with Kids Part II: Settling In

Esperanza Salinas recently moved her family (including two primary-school-aged children) from Chicago to Beijing to work at Beijing United Family Hospital (BJU) as a child and adult psychiatrist. In this article, she draws on her personal experience and her expertise as a child psychiatrist to explain how you can do your best to keep your kids happy and well-adjusted after the big move. 


The same advice can apply when the time comes to leave China and you make your next move – whether to a new city or back to a place you haven’t called home in several years.

Haven’t left home yet? Read Part I of this series first to learn how to get your kids ready before you move.


First few weeks after the move: Maintain continuity

“As they’re growing up, children need consistency, stability, and security,” explains Dr. Salinas. “If things are stable, they feel more secure. If things are chaotic and constantly changing, then they may feel unstable,” she says. For this reason, she suggests maintaining as much consistency as you can when you first arrive. “I think that so much chaos happens around a move like this, and having that consistency and that normalcy is comforting for kids,” she explains. To make the transition as easy as possible, try and spend your first several weeks in a similar daily routine as you had back home.


It’s also important to keep track of how everyone is doing. “At the beginning, it’s important to keep talking to your kids about how they’re feeling and how they’re doing,” says Dr. Salinas. “Make sure they’re enjoying school, make sure they’re involved, have them do after-school activities that they like,” she suggests. Having a sense of involvement can help ease the adjustment period and reduce feelings of homesickness.

After six months: Slowly add local elements

While Dr. Salinas advises celebrating festivals from back home and calling family and friends often to stay in touch, she stresses that it’s also important for your kids to make new connections in Beijing. “The more friends they make, the more adjusted they get,” she explains. “So, it’s good to make a point to make playdates and meet other people. They don’t necessarily have to be from the same place as you. Maybe there are kids in your neighborhood that your kids can hang out with for a few hours.”


After five months of living in China and getting acclimatized, Dr. Salinas’ kids now watch a mix of English and Chinese cartoons. This is one way of adding local elements to your new routine. “Having an ayi can also help because the kids will start speaking to her and picking up Chinese, and she can start cooking more local food so that this becomes part of their experience as well,” she says.


“When we were picking schools, we intentionally picked a school that was not bilingual – it’s English-speaking with Chinese classes,” she says. “I thought it was more important for them to feel at home and to feel comfortable than it was to learn the language,” she says. While Dr. Salinas chose to err on the side of caution when it came to the comfort of her own kids, you may feel that adding having a full China experience is more important to you, and that your kids would thrive in a more Chinese-focused schooling program. Indeed, adding these Chinese elements into your new life here can be a positive thing for everyone in the family, not just small children. “The more we can relate to the culture, the more we feel like we can fit in and the easier the transition will get,” explains Dr. Salinas.

After a few years: Aim for immersion

So, if you want your kids to master Mandarin and become China experts when they grow up, when is a good time to get them more immersed in the language and culture without risking traumatizing them? “After a few years, it won’t hurt them to transition more fully into a Chinese-language environment. The main thing is getting their input,” says Dr. Salinas. “Once you’re here for a few years and you’re acclimated and situated, it becomes like anywhere else. You explore what your options are, you figure out what works for you and your family, and you go for it,” she says.

If your child doesn’t adjust well …

While you can do everything in your power to make an easy adjustment for your child, everyone knows that even the best-laid schemes of mice and men often go awry. “On the psychiatric side of it, there are a lot of kids who will still have a very hard time adjusting, even if you do all of this preparation. They may get depression and anxiety even if you go through everything with them,” says Dr. Salinas. “This is what we in Psychiatry would call an adjustment disorder. Children and adolescents sometimes struggle with this. This is when kids withdraw, aren’t thriving, are having a hard time connecting with friends, are moping, or are showing a lack of interest in activities they used to enjoy. Maybe their sleep pattern or appetite pattern changes, maybe they get more anxious,” she explains.


“I think that as soon as you see it, it’s important to talk about it and, if it doesn’t go away and starts interfering with their schoolwork or activities or relationships, then you should address it. Typically you would address that by doing therapy with the kid. The treatment is short-term therapy to help them adjust and give them an avenue to talk about whatever is going on with them,” she says.


Dr. Esperanza Salinas is an American board-certified child and adult psychiatrist. She speaks English and Spanish. To make an appointment with her, call the BJU Service Center at 4008-919191.

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