How to Help Your Child Adjust to Life in a New Country

A Guide to Supporting a Child Dealing with Cultural Transition

For the past ten months my family has been participating in a ministry program in Northern Ireland. My husband is working through seminary and the classes he’s taken while here account for 24 credit hours toward his degree. Staying true to our unconventional way of doing things, we embarked on this journey with two young children who, at the start, were just two years old and 3 months old. As parents who strive to guide our children through life with grace, we’ve continuously been thinking about helping our children adjust to life in this new city of Larne. Now that our stay in Northern Ireland is nearly over, I’m still thinking about how to help them adjust, but this time they’ll be adjusting back to life in the United States in a few weeks. For my husband and I, we are jumping back into something familiar. Our kiddos, on the other hand, don’t exactly remember life in the States. During these last ten months I’ve been asked by several families to share advice on how best to help children adjust to a new country. Here are some helpful ideas:

1. Wear Your Baby/Toddler/Preschooler

We love to wear our babies and have worn them from the day they were born. Being part of the UK, Northern Ireland has a “pram culture” (my own made-up phrase) meaning, everyone pushes their babies/children in strollers. This is a very cultural thing, everyone does it, and it seems to work well for them. We attempted to use a pram for our first couple weeks here and it just did not work. Our baby was so fussy and I decided to stop trying to fit in, and just wear him in the baby carrier already! He’s over one now and he still loves the carrier. It provides warmth, attachment, comfort, and a place of retreat when he needs to “check out” of our overstimulating world. We even purchased a toddler tula (LINK HERE) after a few months so that our older son could benefit from “going for a ride on daddy” too. He still loves it even at age 3. This is especially helpful in crowded areas or when our attention is being drawn elsewhere.

2. Bring Familiar Toys

Our oldest is very “into” cars, planes and trains. We brought along several of these that could fit into a lunchbox. He has played with them every day since we’ve been here and we are even taking them back to the States with us when we go in a few weeks. I strongly believe that this helped him adjust. Being able to wake up in the morning and see his same toys was a good way to bridge his two worlds together. They became “transitional objects” in his life.

3. Find Familiar Foods

Similar to the toy suggestion above, our first shopping trip was spent finding foods that were familiar to our (then) 2 year old. This will be different for every family, but it eased his mind to know there were bananas and apples here, as well as almonds, fruit snacks, and other favorites. It’s tempting at first to buy all sorts of different foods that look interesting, but sticking with familiarity at the start can make branching out easier later on.

4. Provide Frequent Explanation and Constant Communication

This one is SUPER important. As adults, we see something different, we process it in our minds, and we try to remember it for next time. For kids who are often already overstimulated by their world, they need to hear us explain why things are different. Taking time to talk them through daily activities helps them process what they’re experiencing and is vital to adjustment into a new culture. Many times my answer was as simple as, “That’s just the way they do it in Northern Ireland.” Being honest with my son about the differences we were experiencing proved to remind him we were going through this transition together. I encourage you to make space for extra conversation, and don’t get too worn down when they ask the same questions over and over (<< that is difficult I know!).

5. Keep a Sabbath Day

There are so many activities to get involved in when you move to a new place. It is a great idea to put yourself out there and join groups, clubs, classes, etc. and this is so important to meeting new people and making friends. But it is far too easy to become too busy. We find ourselves running from activity to activity and then our kids are screaming and we look at each other with the expression on our faces that asks, “What in the world have we gotten ourselves into?!” This is when you realize you need a sabbath day. God commanded us to take a day of rest for a reason! Usually we hole up at home, stay in our pajamas, read books, make food, and spend no time cleaning. It’s wonderful and allows us time to reconnect.

6. Visit Parent/Toddler Play Groups

This is a great way to get out of your house and meet people, especially people with whom you have something in common! Kids always help bridge the gap and give us things to talk about. Even before we understood much about the culture here, we were able to laugh with other parents about funny things our kids do. Children speak a universal language! They get a chance to play, and you get a chance to chat with other adults. It’s a win-win situation.

7. Find the Library

We found the library early on during our time in Northern Ireland. Our initial excitement was finding books (we left all ours behind in the move), yay! Our excitement was furthered when we discovered that all the books were printed in the UK, meaning the language was a bit different. These are so fun to read and helped us learn new words and phrases that are used here, but not in the States. Generally, libraries are central meeting places. At the Larne library, there are flyers for knitting clubs, book clubs, concerts, craft and story times, and our kid’s favorite: Rhythm & Rhyme, as well as other events taking place in the community. It also helped us get out of the house and into our community, one of our main goals here.

8. Give Extra Attention

Sometimes our kiddos “act out” during times of cultural transition. We all experience culture shock differently, and kids don’t often know how to express what they’re feeling. Words go out the window, and screams/grunts prevail. It can look like bad behavior, but really they just need some time and assurance that we are there to help them through it. When everything in their life has been upended, they need to be reminded that we are not going anywhere, and that we love them. As parents, we are the constants in their lives and our children need to be sure of that. Acknowledgement of feelings is important with all children and is possibly even MORE important in times of cultural transition. “I know this is hard. I see that you’re sad/confused/frustrated. What do you think we could do differently? Can I help you XYZ? I’m here if you need me!, etc.” Taking extra time for cuddles provides a space for conversation. Think about asking questions that don’t require a yes/no answer. This can give us a good idea of what’s going on in our kids’ heads and what types of things they get “stuck” on or what is hard to deal with.

It is really hard to adjust to a new culture, and can be exhausting when doing it with kids, but it is also so rewarding and satisfying! I hope this gives you some good ideas. Have you lived abroad with your children? What has been helpful for you?

Thanks for Giving

Happy Thanksgiving from Northern Ireland! After all our time spent out of the United States, yesterday was the first holiday we spent away from extended family. I guess we always just planned our travels around the holidays.

After some deliberation, I decided to make a dinner of all our favorite Thanksgiving staples, and tweaked the recipes to make them more healthful. There’s no way I’m going to spend two days preparing foods only to feel like crap for the next few days! We invited some friends over and shared a roast chicken (Turkey is hard to find and quite expensive!), gravy, cornbread casserole, mashed potatoes, cranberry salad (we actually used currants… no cranberries until Christmastime!), stuffing, sweet potato casserole, apple pie, and pecan pie cookies. Everything turned out pretty well and I’m proud of John and me for pulling off an entire Thanksgiving meal ourselves.

thanksgiving2015Traditionally, this day is so focused on the preparation and eating of food. I am not complaining about that… I love to eat nutritious foods! I love celebrating by spending time in the kitchen with loved ones. This year looked different from years past, but the idea was the same. It’s also a great day to really focus on what we are thankful for.

I am so thankful for my family (near and far). I am thankful for fast friendships that have turned into familial ones. And I’m thankful for an abundance of food on my table.

We have been the recipients of so much generosity these past two years. Our fundraising period and our time abroad has shown great witness to the wonderful love of God’s people. There is no way I could ever say “thank you” enough to those who have shown so much kindness, hospitality, and sacrifice for our family. Our church families (past and present) have given up their time, their finances, and their resources to support us this year. On this Thanksgiving 2015, I want to say THANK YOU for giving! I know it sounds cheesy, but we really are so grateful. We are thankful for you.

Peace, love, and cranberry (currant) salad.

<3

Sunday Confessional, 15 November 2015

I confess that I started celebrating Christmas early this year.

I can hear you now, “What about Thanksgiving?”

I know most Americans have a (turkey) bone to pick with people who start Christmas festivities before (they’ve eaten their weight in mashed potatoes at) Thanksgiving, but THERE’S NO THANKSGIVING here in Northern Ireland, so hooray! The Christmas season is upon us!

Advent officially starts on the 29th of November this year, but I’ve already simmered our first batch of chai tea on the stovetop so that means winter is coming. In our house we’ve been listening to Christmas music, making extra treats (healthy of course!), and beginning conversations about advent with our 3 year old. John has even been making little nativity scene people out of empty toilet paper rolls. I think we’ve got a few shepherds so far.

Surprisingly deep questions have surfaced from our 3 year old. I shouldn’t be surprised though; every intelligent and thoughtful human being can ask good questions.

“Is Jesus God? Where is God? Who are the magi? Are they magic? Why are the magi wise? Did Jesus like his presents? Was Jesus a baby like my baby brother? Why was he a baby?”

I love talking about this kind of stuff with Hosea. Sometimes (okay, many times), he drives me bonkers with all the questions he asks. But there is really something wonderful about watching him sort things out in his head and try to understand complex ideas.

I love this “extended” Christmas season as I’ve decided to call it. There is so much expectation in the period leading up to the 25th of December. The feeling of anticipation bubbles up; a baby will be born and he is the Savior of the world! So much joy. So much hope.

I personally know the joy that a baby can bring. I also personally know the joy that Jesus can bring. I hope you’re ready for this advent season to begin in a couple weeks. I know I am.

<3

Peace, love, and chai.

Sunday Confessional Oct. 25

I confess that I’m not slowing down.

I’m a stay at home parent. I’m also a full time student, and I work at a church where I am being mentored by the pastor (as part of the degree program). You know that scene in Star Wars, the one where the Millenium Falcon goes into warp speed? I often feel like that is what is happening to my life. Sometimes I get to the end of the day, and I feel like it’s been super long. I’m tired from having chased my three year old around or held my one year old all day. When I do get them down for nap/quiet time, I either work on a sermon or a paper for school, or if I am super good I get a craft ready to do with the boys when they get up. When I experience those days and bed time finally rolls around, I look back on the past 24 hours and I am speechless (and breathless). The days seem long when I’m living them, but the months are falling away like a tree shedding its leaves for winter. I want to slow down life. I want to, but I just need to figure out how. Recently I was reading a text for one of my classes and came across a really good concept that I want to share.

Author Tracy Balzer, writes about finding rest from all the noise in our lives;

“Perhaps we should consider when we last experienced true silence. It may be difficult for us to say with any accuracy, because we’ve gotten so used to the hum of electricity around us that we don’t even realize that we live with a constant level of noise…When did I last drive my car without the stereo playing? When was the last time my family and I sat around the dinner table with phones, dishwasher, and television turned off? None of these things are evil. But could it be that the many layers of noise we dwell in have numbed our sensitivity to the still small voice of God?”

As I write this I let myself listen for all the levels of noise that exist all around me. I can hear the hum of the refrigerator, the electricity of the lights, the WIFI modem, the computer fan, levels and levels of noise that I never really notice, all working in harmony to numb to the presence of God in my every day existence.

I think maybe I can slow down by being intentional with what I allow myself to take in. By taking a day of rest, where our family turns off our cell phones, and powers down the computers, and really listens for God. I think this could become a weekly event. Does it make you uncomfortable to think about turning off your cell phone for a full day? I know, I know, how would you be able to check facebook, your email, craigslist, gumtree, or the scores of that sporting event? Do you know that theres actually a word for what I am describing? It’s called a Sabbath. Not just a weekend day where we go to church, but a day completely plugged into God. Would you like to join me in carving out time to celebrate this day? To turn off and unplug electronics, to refresh our spirits, rekindle our passions, renew our minds and bodies, and reconnect with God and those we love.

Sunday Confessional- 18 Oct 2015

I confess that I have an imperfect marriage.

A few months ago our mentor spoke with us about facilitating a marriage course at our church. The course would run for 6 weeks, there would be dinner available, and creche for the kids. Couples would be able to sit and chat with each other while doing exercises alongside the course manual and DVD. Of course, John and I were more than willing, because our marriage is PERFECT and we have LOADS to teach these other couples! Oh wait, just kidding, nothing in our lives is perfect, especially our marriage (except for maybe our kids, but even they get snotty sometimes….)!

But truthfully, we were excited to start this course because we are passionate about marriage and the covenant shared between two people.

We chose a Sunday evening to run the course which makes our Sundays extra long, especially if I’m singing in the Praise Band or John is preaching (both of which we did today, by the way). We do our church thang, and then we come home to cook for 20 people (eating lunch somewhere in there) and doing a bunch of dishes, then we go back to church and set up. After everyone eats and I hear encouraging comments like, “That food was gorgeous/lovely/to die for/amazing!” (<<This is so fun for me, I really enjoy cooking for people!), I do a bunch more dishes. Thankfully, our boys both go to creche so that I can do all this!

Turns out, amidst all this work, I LOVE Sundays.

As I have said before, Sundays are my jam! After a long day, I still treasure these evenings to allow couples the time to invest in their marriages. My favorite part is watching people interact with each other, taking turns talking and listening, and hearing laughter. From the kitchen in the back, I can’t tell what exactly each couple is talking about but it’s nice to see them enjoying each other’s company. What an important relationship. It’s so easy to get caught up in, well, LIFE, and forget about truly investing in the one we’ve chosen to “do” this life with.

No one’s marriage is perfect, especially mine. John and I weren’t “chosen” to facilitate this marriage course because we have the best marriage ever. We were just willing. We hope to encourage the couples we interact with every day and remind them (and ourselves) that God is the author of our stories! He created us, brought us together, and delights in seeing us live in harmony with one another.

Peace.

And, Happy Sunday!

Easter Tuesday at Castlewellan Forest Park

It’s still “Easter week” here in Northern Ireland and that means many people are off work and school! This has been fun for us because we’ve been able to spend more quality time with friends. Yesterday we joined a convoy of cars driving to Castlewellan Forest Park in Castlewellan. Driving from Larne, it took us about an hour and a half to get there. It was an absolutely gorgeous day so we had a beautiful drive! We journeyed through Belfast to get there but also traveled on beautiful country roads. We saw green hills, mountains and sheep, and passed by lovely cottages.

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Once we parked (£5 per car), we walked down the hill and folded out our blankets on the huge stretch of green. We were right next to the lake and in view of the castle too. Such a gorgeous setting in the Mourne mountains! We were able to get one of the scattered picnic tables but we had blankets for the ground too. We didn’t go inside the castle but apparently you can stay there overnight in their dorm-like rooms. Various conferences and retreats are hosted there.

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My 2 year old loved watching the dogs run around and jump in the water, and sticking his own feet in the water too. There are a few steps down into the lake where you can sit and play in the water if you want. We saw several people kayaking in kayaks they had rented at the visitor centre. (I want to do that on our next visit!) My toddler also enjoyed flying our kite, kicking around a ball, and walking along the path to collect sticks! There’s a 1-mile trail around the lake and you can even rent bikes to cycle it. This portion is very buggy/bike-friendly!

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The Peace Maze, on the other hand, is not so buggy-friendly. People did have them but it’s a gravel path and very rocky. My 2 year old rode on my husband’s shoulders and I wore the wee man in my onya carrier. The sign said that most people get through the maze in about 40 minutes but we lucked out and finished it in 25! There is a peace bell at the end that my toddler enjoyed ringing. The maze was lovely and called the “Peace Maze” because it represents the path to a peaceful future for Northern Ireland.

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At the end of the maze there is a nice wooden playground that was filled with kids on this busy Easter Tuesday!

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There are toilets and changing facilities near the car park so use those before you head down to the lake/castle area. If you get hungry or thirsty there is a cafe on site too. We definitely want to visit again if we have another free day with beautiful weather!

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Easter Monday at Carnfunnock Country Park

Today was what our Northern Irish friends call “Easter Monday” which basically means it’s the day after Easter and most everybody has the day off work/school. Hoping for nice weather, everyone seems to flock to outdoor venues to spend their time. With the gorgeous forecast, Carnfunnock was popular today and we thoroughly enjoyed this huge park!

154529_3395686409592_4078452918812904327_nSet right on the coast near Larne, Carnfunnock boasts over 190 hectares (over 470 acres) of gardens, trails, trees, and stunning views of the coastline. We loved walking around and looking at all the flowers. My toddler especially loved smelling them. There are many attractions for wee ones of all ages! There are remote control boats and cars, bouncy houses, crazy golf (putt putt), a train for younger ones, trampoline jumps for older kids, a huge labyrinth, and even those big inflatable balls you can get inside! All of these cost a couple pounds each.

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The very best activity in my opinion is the gigantic play area, the “Adventure Playground” which is free! There are a few different playgrounds inside this area, each designed with a specific age group in mind, although all kids can climb on any of the structures. My 2 year old loved the one that looked like a ship, but was very brave and bolted to the top of the bigger one to fly down the slides! There’s even a zip line and some sort of skateboard/skiing simulator activity that looked really neat. Scattered between the play equipment were all types of spinning chairs, tire swings, balance beams, and traditional swings. We could’ve spent all day in this one area.

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Just a few steps away is a big grassy pitch where kids were running around playing tag, kicking soccer balls, and throwing frisbees. This is right next to the crazy golf area. There is a small shop that sells ice cream and other treats, along with a Visitor Centre that has balls, bubbles, and toy swords. They also have postcards and all sorts of baubles labeled with “Carnfunnock Country Park”. So if you’re looking for a souvenir, this is the place to be!

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We paid for parking today but they don’t always charge for that. There is also a coffee shop in the Visitor Centre if you need a pick me up after all the walking. We did a lot of walking, but all on paved paths of course so it is really buggy-friendly. My 2 year old did great but spent a lot of time riding on my husband’s shoulders. If you have one like we do who is still wearing nappies, I’m happy to point out that there are accessible changing stations too!

We had a wonderful visit on this beautiful day and we’ll definitely be back again. 1422524_3395601207462_5829755120638638774_n    12862_3395599847428_7643432229161630222_n