There are so many moments I remember about my final days in Buenos Aires before we boarded a plane and moved to America. I remember telling my father that I did not want to leave my country. I remember watching my grandmothers sobbing at the airport as we got further and further away from them. I remember looking up at my older sister who was crying, which automatically meant that I needed to cry too even though at the young age of six I could not have grasped the magnitude, the loss, and the utter loneliness that my family would soon encounter. In a new land, with a new language and culture, we were all on own and we had to figure it out – just like thousands of other families that chose immigration and specifically to Israel.
The children are the real heroes in every immigration story because at such young and vulnerable ages, they learn that lives can be turned upside down and they are forced to survive, persevere, and eventually thrive. Sometimes, adults justify uprooting children because they see them as resilient, able to handle change and to learn new skills with facility; after all their brains are malleable and still growing. But the truth is, they also experience loss, grief, anger, lack of control, frustration and loneliness. Most of them have left behind good friends, teachers, family members (grandparents, uncles, cousins), sport teams, and their own rooms. And teenagers? They have been “asked” (without much choice) to give up everything they worked so hard for, including their sense of self and identity. They might feel betrayed, angry and full of spite – their sadness and grief beyond words.
A simple Google search on “culture shock” reveals the commonly known stages of the phenomenon (honeymoon, crisis, adjustment, adaptation, and reverse culture shock). We know (some of us from experience) how intense the process of acculturation can be, from a sense of euphoria to deep despair and everything in between. These heightened emotions are a normal reaction to an extremely difficult process. It is expected that children will show signs of anxiety while they are adjusting. Here are some behavioral signs that your child may display when experiencing anxiety:
- Exhibits some type of worry every single day
- Seems worried often about events beyond his or her control
- Tries to avoid particular situations or events
- Demonstrates a preoccupation with pleasing everyone
- Changes in behavior including clinginess or moodiness
- Development of nervous habits such as nail biting or tics
- Suddenly starts getting into trouble at school
- Perfectionism with school work
- Fears going to school
- Worries excessively about his or her own safety or the safety of loved ones
- Complains often about headaches, stomachaches, fatigue, or muscles aching
- Sleep problems
- Wants to be near parents at all times
- Unable to concentrate on simple tasks
- Gets scared easily
- Rarely seems calm or relaxed
- Fidgets often, can’t sit still
- Frequently in a bad mood
If your child does exhibit these symptoms and they are impacting daily functioning, it is best to intervene before it gets worse. The first and most fundamental step is to recognize that you (the parent) are the most important person in your child's life! It is within the parent-child relationship that the child needs to feel safe and secure. Listed below are three ways to cultivate this relationship and help alleviate anxiety in children.
- Choose to connect. This is very hard because when children feel anxious, they usually act out, which automatically causes parents to distance themselves emotionally. One of the hardest challenges that we face as parents is to stay connected while our kids are being rude, apathetic, having temper tantrums and/or difficult to control. Perhaps at that moment you cannot connect, so make it a point to connect when things are calm. Build a reservoir that can be used to get through the hard times.
- Address the fears and worries. Children who experience anxiety also feel very alone in their distress. Addressing their anxiety means you are giving your child permission to talk about it.
- Validate and empathize. Once children express their fears and worries, do not try to solve, minimize or dismiss their stress in an effort to make everyone feel better. If you want to de-escalate a feeling, you need to see it, label it and accept it and then with their cooperation explore ways to resolve it.
Parenting, while simultaneously dealing with immigration, acculturation and anxiety can seem like an impossible task. However, the parent-child relationship is the anchor amidst the chaos. Children need their parents. Taking time to nurture and cultivate the parent-child relationship is the biggest gift parents can give to their children. And the greatest gift parents can receive from their children is watching them thrive.
Deby Rauch is a clinical psychologist who works with children, adolescents and adults. She treats anxiety, depression and adjustment disorders. She also give parenting support for parents in crisis. Deby sees patients at her clinic, 37 Yigal Yadin. Contact Deby at 052-4000786 or firstname.lastname@example.org or Facebook: Dr. Deby Rauch.